Workplace Harassment: When Public Criticism Goes Too Far

Workplace Harassment: When Public Criticism Goes Too Far

Within the realm of employment, occasional mistakes and performance shortfalls are not uncommon. Employers have the responsibility of providing constructive feedback and guidance during such instances. However, the path to effective feedback must be carefully navigated to prevent public criticism from morphing into verbal harassment. While employment law recognizes an employer’s authority in managing their workforce, it places a profound emphasis on fairness and respect.

Public criticism, whether delivered face-to-face or through digital communication channels, has the potential to blur the boundaries between constructive feedback and detrimental harassment. In this article, we embark on a journey to explore the intricate nuances of delivering constructive criticism. Our aim is to help employers avoid legal disputes, cultivate healthier employer-employee relationships, and ensure their workplaces remain free from toxicity.

It’s important to note that public criticism by an employer can not only create a toxic workplace environment but also lead to adverse consequences, including reduced employee performance, diminished morale, and potential financial repercussions for the business. As we delve deeper, we’ll uncover the ramifications of such actions and the imperative need for maintaining a respectful and supportive work environment.

Why Employers Might Opt for Publicly Addressing Employee Issues

Despite the potential drawbacks outlined earlier, some employers may perceive public criticism of an employee as a viable or necessary course of action in certain circumstances.

For instance, an employer might choose public criticism when confronted with a particularly grave mistake that demands immediate reprimand. They may view this public approach as a means to deter other employees from repeating the same error or to encourage overall productivity and improvement.

In some cases, employers might intend to use public criticism as a way to signal to the workforce that they are addressing concerns and taking action.

However, it’s prudent for employers to maintain a focus on private criticism while publicly emphasizing their general policies.

Court Findings

If public criticism extends beyond reasonable bounds or displays insensitivity, it may lead to liability for the employer, contingent on the extent of harm suffered by the employee.

In some instances, this harm manifests as damages for intentional infliction of mental distress or aggravated damages designed to compensate for mental anguish. The Supreme Court of Canada, in the case of Honda Canada Inc v Keays, established that employees may be entitled to aggravated damages based on the manner in which they were dismissed.

Notably, Ontario courts have occasionally awarded substantial sums in aggravated damages when extreme public criticism played a pivotal role in an employee’s termination. In a notable case,

Boucher v. Wal-Mart Canada Corp., 2014 ONCA 419, the Ontario Court of Appeal granted $200,000 in aggravated damages to an employee who endured humiliation from their manager in the presence of colleagues.

It’s worth noting that recent developments in Ontario case law may necessitate that civil claims related to chronic mental distress against employers be processed through the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board for benefits.

Unless the public criticism is linked to a protected ground under the Ontario Human Rights Code or the Canadian Human Rights Act, the employee is unlikely to have grounds for human rights violations that would entitle them to damages. However, if such a discriminatory criticism was made publicly, it would likely be considered an aggravating factor.

How an HR Lawyer Can Assist

An HR lawyer can provide valuable assistance in cases involving public criticism or verbal harassment in the workplace:

  • Legal Assessment: An HR lawyer can evaluate the circumstances surrounding the public criticism to determine if it constitutes verbal harassment or breaches any employment laws. They will assess whether there are grounds for legal action and advise you on the best course of action.
  • Legal Rights: Your lawyer will inform you of your legal rights as an employee or employer in cases of public criticism. They will explain your options, potential claims, and the legal remedies available to you.
  • Negotiations: If appropriate, an HR lawyer can engage in negotiations with the opposing party, whether it’s an employer or employee, to reach a resolution outside of court. This may involve settlement discussions to address damages or other remedies.
  • Documentation: Your lawyer can help gather and organize evidence, such as emails, witness statements, or performance evaluations, to support your case. Thorough documentation is crucial in employment law disputes.
  • Claim Preparation: Should legal action be necessary, your lawyer will prepare and file the required legal documents, including claims or complaints, on your behalf. They will ensure that all deadlines are met.
  • Representation: An HR lawyer will represent you in legal proceedings, including hearings, mediations, or court trials. They will advocate for your rights and interests throughout the process.
  • Legal Strategies: Your lawyer will develop a legal strategy tailored to your specific case. This may involve arguing for compensation, reinstatement, or other remedies, depending on the circumstances.
  • Adherence to Regulations: HR lawyers are well-versed in employment laws and regulations, ensuring that all actions taken are in compliance with relevant laws.
  • Settlement Negotiations: If both parties are open to resolution, your lawyer can engage in settlement negotiations to reach a mutually acceptable agreement, avoiding protracted litigation.
  • Education and Guidance: An HR lawyer will provide you with guidance on how to handle similar situations in the future, helping you understand your rights and obligations under employment law.

In cases involving public criticism or verbal harassment, it’s essential to consult with an experienced employment lawyer who can navigate the complex legal landscape and advocate on your behalf to protect your rights and seek appropriate remedies.

Contact Achkar Law

Criticizing employees publicly may happen and trigger more than we bargained for. If you are an employer and want to know more about your obligations regarding managing employees, or an employee who has questions about your rights, our team of experienced HR Lawyers at Achkar Law can help.

Contact us by phone toll-free at 1 (800) 771-7882 or email us at [email protected] and we would be happy to assist.