Can complaining about a boss get you fired?

September 23rd, 2011 | Posted by admin in employee rights

When does expressing workplace dissatisfaction with one’s boss turn into just cause for dismissal?

Two decisions of the BC Supreme Court issued 10 days apart tell us something about the answer.

In the first case, the employee had verbally criticized his boss, the CEO, in the presence of other employees. The employer was a small company with five employees and an investor. The employee had criticized the CEO in front of the investor when the investor was considering a controlling investment that was necessary for the survival of the employer. The employee, in the presence of another employee, told the investor that he thought the CEO was not fulfilling his role as chief executive officer and had not delivered in time of need. The investor, because he was part of the operation, had already formed his own conclusions about the CEO that happened to be the same as those stated by the employee.

While the employee clearly criticized his boss among fellow employees and important clientele or investors at a particularly sensitive time, it was held that the criticism was not sufficient for just cause. The co-workers routinely exchanged discussion, the criticism of the boss came as no surprise to the employees or the investor, differences of opinion were bound to be stated and overheard by others in a small office, and since the investor had already formed a similar opinion of the CEO to the one stated by the employee, it could hardly be said the investor refused to increase his investment based on what the employee said.

In the second case, the employee went on medical leave because of a situation at work involving her boss. While on medical leave and without first speaking to her boss, she wrote an e-mail to the board of directors of the employer that was highly critical of her boss.

In the e-mail, she stated that she “has been compromised in every regard and cannot function in the current climate,” her “position … has been compromised by [her boss’] unilateral actions,” her boss had “become irate with” her, she could accordingly “no longer take responsibility for the work of others since [her] hands have been tied” by her boss, she accused her boss of having a “stated intention to violate a client’s right to confidentiality, this in turn compromising the confidence I had built with my client,” and so on. The general gist of the e-mail pointed to her boss’ inability to manage and his perceived serious character flaws.

The employer took this e-mail to be a resignation, provided just cause for termination, chose to accept it as a resignation, and brought the employment to its end.

The court rejected any idea that the e-mail was a resignation, ruling that clearly the employee was crying out for help and wished to provoke further dialogue, thus supporting an intent to continue working. However, the court found that the content of the e-mail constituted such severe criticism, and that this criticism was levied in a way that was designed to undercut the boss in the eyes of the board, that it constituted just cause for the dismissal. The court said the content and the method of delivery of the e-mail destroyed the employment relationship. The court found that it was incumbent on the employee to first have gone to the boss to attempt to work things out if possible before she projected her conclusions to the board. To fail to do so destroyed the working relationship between her and her boss. The court also found the content of the e-mail to be disrespectful, pejorative and unnecessarily inflammatory. Both the content of the e-mail, and the method used to deliver it, constituted just cause, each on their own.

So what is to be gleaned? First, the employment relationship remains one of master-servant even in these modern times, and the master is entitled to be respected. Second, it is wise to keep one’s own counsel and, at the least, avoid putting words in writing that may come back to hurt you. If you are having difficulties in the workplace, obtain the guidance of an employment lawyer. Third, end runs around the boss are never a good idea if you plan on a long career.

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