Most people go through stressful periods at work or deal with colleagues with whom they do not get along. These are normal, and issues tend to ebb and flow over time. However, in some cases a workplace may become so toxic it could be labelled as a ‘poisoned workplace’, which could create rights for the affected employee(s).

What is a “Poisoned Work Environment”?

A poisoned work environment is generally considered to have been created where the workplace has become untenable for one or more employees due to toxic behaviour or mistreatment. It is generally attributed to repeated conduct over a period of time, but can also be attributed to a single incident if it is serious enough. In 2017, the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal defined a “poisonous workplace” as follows:

The term “poisoned work environment” is usually applied in circumstances where the work environment has become toxic because of pervasive discrimination or harassment, most commonly involving grounds relating to race or sex.

Human rights law in Ontario holds that every person should be able to work free from harassment or discrimination based on a set of characteristics, which include:

  • Age
  • Creed
  • Sexual orientation
  • Race
  • Gender
  • Family status

If an employee is regularly discriminated against based on one of these traits, or subjected to ongoing harassment, a court may find their work environment has become toxic.

Toxic Environments & Constructive Dismissal

Constructive dismissal occurs when the terms of an employee’s work or environment are unilaterally changed so drastically that they no longer comply with the original employment terms. This can result if an employee is subjected to a significant pay cut, or required to move a great distance in order to continue their work. However, constructive dismissal can also be found when an employee is subjected to mistreatment, harassment or discrimination.

In 2019, the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld a decision in which an employee was found to have been constructively dismissed from her role at a telecommunications company after she was forced to work with someone who had previously been fired af4er a number of employees, including the woman in question, had accused him of sexual misconduct.

Some years later, the man was rehired, and the employee in question brought a claim for constructive dismissal. Both the lower court and the ONCA concluded that having to work in proximity to a man against whom she had made credible accusations of sexual harassment was untenable and found in her favour regarding the claim of constructive dismissal. While this was technically a single incident, it was serious enough to warrant the finding.

In other cases, ongoing but persistent mistreatment could also be considered serious enough to have ‘poisoned’ the work environment for the employee subjected to the behaviour. If so, it will create a valid claim for constructive dismissal and open the employer up to liability for damages.

Guidance for Employers to Avoid a Poisoned Work Environment

It is vital that employers take all employee complaints or reports of mistreatment seriously and take action quickly. Once a complaint has been made, the employer should immediately conduct an internal investigation, and accommodate the affected employee as necessary. It may also be prudent to take disciplinary action against any employee found to have subjected the complainant to harassment or discrimination, including potential termination.

Employers should remember that they are obligated under Ontario human rights laws to provide a work environment free of harassment and discrimination for all employees. Part of this obligation is to take immediate and effective action if this is challenged in any way.

For guidance on employment law matters relating to harassment and constructive dismissal, contact the offices of Toronto employment lawyers Grosman Gale Fletcher Hopkins LLP. We regularly advise workplace parties on a wide range of legal workplace issues. Contact us online or by phone at 416-364-9599 to schedule a consultation.