HR | Atlantic - Positive Change at Work

Duty of civility

Apr 17, 2010

In Piresferreira v. Ayotte and Bell Mobility Inc., a 60 year old sales account manager with a good sales record and excellent performance reviews had a tough sales year.  She became the target of an abusive supervisor’s temper.  He yelled and swore at her when she resisted his suggestions for improving her sales results.  Her troubles reached the crisis point during an incident where he swore at her in the presence of a senior marketing executive, and later that day the supervisor physically pushed her away.  The employee was very upset by this behaviour.

The supervisor never apologized to her; indeed, at the next opportunity, he presented the employee with a draconian performance improvement plan that would require her to report daily to him on her progress. 

The employee complained to human resources.  As a result of her complaint, the employee was informed that the Supervisor would be given a written warning and required to attend two courses on effective communication and conflict resolution (which, in fact, he never attended).  No one from the employer sought to follow up with the employee as to how she was doing, to offer an apology or to discuss a possible return to work until after litigation was started.  The employee was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and a major depressive condition and was unable to return to work.

The Ontario Superior Court Judge found that both the Supervisor and the Employer were liable for the supervisor’s conduct, which included: assault and battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress (on the part of the supervisor) and negligent infliction of emotional distress (on the part of the Employer), mental suffering, psycho-traumatic disability and constructive dismissal.  More than $500,000 in damages were awarded jointly against the supervisor and the employer ($45,000 in general damages and over $450,000 for loss of past and future income).

In her award, Judge Aitken commented:

“Bell Mobility was not living up to the implied term of any employment relationship that the employer will treat the employee with civility, decency, respect and dignity…”
Those words might be troubling for some employers.  What is meant by civility?  Does this mean employees can sue if employers don’t mind their manners?  It is highly doubtful that this was the intent of Judge Aitken’s words.  However they do serve to cast light on opportunities for employers to avoid finding themselves held liable for the bullying tactics of their supervisors.  Judge Aitken’s reference to civility is aligned with the results of recent studies indicating that uncivil behaviour is a precursor to full-blown harassment and bullying.  Aitken’s decision is an invitation to employers to develop a respectful or civil workplace so that if there are breaches in acceptable behaviour, the conduct is addressed before the extreme behaviour of harassment and bullying occur and give rise to high costs in terms of litigation, damages and the human toll.

There is great work going on in Atlantic Canada to support respectful workplace behaviours as well as civility in general.  For example, visit the Research Team on Workplace Violence and Abuse (Workplace Bullying) website:

To learn how HRA can help you develop a civil workplace, contact Michele.

Recent Articles

Recent Tweets