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The Accidental Termination

A recent Ontario Court of Appeal decision highlights the importance of maintaining composure – and not venting frustrations upon employees.

In Sweeting v. Mokthe plaintiff was a nurse employed by the defendant doctor in a small medical practice.  Over time, and due to the departure of an administrative employee, the plaintiff had taken on a significant amount of administrative duties in addition to her practice.

A disagreement arose between the plaintiff and the defendant over the defendant’s suggestion that the clinic’s medical files be converted to electronic format.  This would have resulted in a significant workload increase for the nurse.  This became an ongoing source of friction in the workplace.

Matters ultimately came to a head in a heated conversation between the plaintiff and the defendant.  The exact words exchanged were disputed at trial, but the Trial Court ultimately found that the defendant had been angry throughout the meeting and had told the plaintiff:

“Go! Get out! I am so sick of coming into this office every day and seeing your ugly face.”

The plaintiff alleged that with those words the defendant terminated her employment.  She argued that the harsh words used, in the context of a small workplace, created a situation where the defendant’s words could only be objectively viewed as a termination.

The defendant denied that the plaintiff had been dismissed.  He denied uttering the words found by the trial court, and testified that he had actually been referring to the “ugliness in the office,” and that he had actually said “Let’s get out of here and go home.” The Trial Court rejected the defendant’s account of events, and agreed with the plaintiff that she had been dismissed.

The Trial Court found that a reasonable person working in a close, professional work environment would have interpreted the defendant’s statement as a termination.  The Trial Court found that the personal insult and direction to “get out” created a situation that a reasonable observer would perceive as an intent to dismiss.  In addition, the Trial Court found that the plaintiff had been reduced to tears and that the defendant had not attempted to rectify any misunderstanding.  As a result, it concluded that the defendant never intended for the plaintiff to return to work.

Alternatively, the Trial Court also found that the actions of the defendant constituted a constructive dismissal.  Although there was only on incident, the actions of the defendant effectively destroyed the ability of the plaintiff to continue working there.

Interestingly, because there was only one incident and no pattern of inappropriate conduct, the Trial Court declined to award punitive or aggravated damages.

In a short endorsement, the Court of Appeal upheld the trial decision, except on a minor administrative point concerning the calculation of damages.

What Employers Should Know

This case underscores the need for employers to record any instances of disagreement or discipline with employees, in writing if possible.  The question of termination in this case turned very much on the precise words used by the employer.  Written evidence in this regard is invaluable.

Additionally, employers should be careful to avoid situations of workplace conflict where emotions run high.  It is seldom advisable to manage “in the heat of the moment”.  When those moments come, and they will, pause.  Take a breath.  Unhinged, emotional venting in the workplace is never productive.

Finally, this case demonstrates the consequences of failing to remain professional and calm, even in the face of insubordination or other defiant behavior by employees.  Being the bigger person is not only good HR, it serves to highlight the employee’s misconduct and to keep the focus where it should be – on effective progressive discipline.

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