When an employer unilaterally changes a fundamental term of an employee’s job, then an employee may quit and claim ‘constructive dismissal’. Essentially, what this means is that the changes to the employment relation would have left any reasonable individual with no other option rather than to quit. The employee may then claim constructive dismissal, and if successful, would be owed a severance (referred to as ‘notice pay’) as compensation.
Unilateral changes that usually trigger constructive dismissal include significant reduction of pay, demotion, discrimination, reduction of hours and so on. The cause of a constructive dismissal is usually easily identified as a single factor of significant affect. However, the courts do not necessarily look at a single factor. Constructive dismissal may result from several changes or circumstances that create an intolerable environment for an employee. The cumulative effect, therefore, would trigger a constructive dismissal.
This was demonstrated in Shah v. Xerox Canada Ltd 2000 (OCA). Shah was an employee of Xerox for 12 and a half years with a good performance record, bonuses and raises. Shah accepted an internal transfer and reported to a manager with a personality and philosophy that was not compatible with Shah’s. Shah’s new manager was aggressive in style, very outgoing and confident, assertive and combative; Shah was reserved, withdrawn, and gentle. This created uncertain expectations for Shah, as his new team encouraged an ‘empowerment’ culture, free thinking and independence, whereas Shah liked direction and structure. Shah’s new manager raised multiple performance concerns. The first critical performance review used poor factual evidence, and the second one provided poor detail and questionable claims. Shah then received 3 unexpected and unwarranted warning letters over a 2-month span, the last placing Shah on probation without defining any expectations or allowing an opportunity to respond. This also added to the mental distress Shah was experiencing in addition to stress from his personal life. Shah requested a transfer and once his manager denied him, Shah quit and successfully claimed constructive dismissal.
The court considered the cumulative effect of Shah’s change of environment. This included the change in culture, the manager’s style and treatment towards Shah, including the lack of detail contained in the warning letters, unclear expectations and unfounded claims. Whereas Xerox argued that constructive dismissal must result from a unilaterally imposed fundamental change to the employment contract, the court maintained that the focus must be on whether the employer intends to be bound by the employment contract. The cumulative effect of the multiple warnings that lacked details for corrective action signified Xerox did not intend to continue the employment relation with Shah. This, in addition to the cultural change affecting Shah, resulted in a constructive dismissal.
Overall, constructive dismissal may result from conditions not typical of most constructive dismissal causes. It is important to speak with an employment law expert if faced with an intolerable situation in the workplace that makes continued employment unreasonable.