All employees have the right to work in an environment free from discrimination and harassment. However, in the circumstances that an employee is subject to pervasive insulting or degrading offensive actions that make the workplace hostile or unwelcoming, a poisoned or toxic work environment is created.

Things that Constitute a Poisoned Work Environment

1.   Verbal Abuse

Abuse comes in a variety of forms, not all of which are physical. Verbal abuse occurs when an employee is subject to repeated verbal attacks from their coworkers or employers. Consider it a red flag if you often get insulted or humiliated in your workplace. If you frequently get yelled or screamed at for no reason, it is another sign that you are subject to verbal abuse.

2.   Insulting or degrading comments based on personal characteristics

The Ontario Human Rights Code states, “Every person has a right to equal treatment with respect to employment without discrimination because of race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, age, record of offense, marital status, family status or disability”. If your coworkers or employer often make unwelcome or insulting comments based on the aforementioned personal characteristics, this amounts to the creation of harassment in the workplace and hence a poisoned work environment.

3.   Unwelcome sexual remarks or contact

Sexual and gender-based harassment takes on a number of forms, which includes but is not limited to unnecessary physical contact, leering or inappropriate staring, sexually suggestive remarks or innuendo, display of sexual pictures or images and spread sexual rumours. These unwelcome behaviours of a sexual nature, if allowed to continue, could create a hostile work environment for the recipient.

4.   Conduct that intimidates or humiliates employee

Conducts or actions that intimidate or humiliates employees into accepting poor treatment and violations of their rights constitute another form of workplace harassment. Violence is not necessary, as long as these intimidating behaviours impose a fear of harm on the victims. Bullying of this kind also consists of a hostile work environment.

5.   Targeting a particular employee with unjustified criticism or impossible goals

Targeted behaviors at a particular employee that consist of overly harsh criticism, excessive performance monitoring and unrealistic and unmanageable business goals could also create workplace bullying. Such behaviors have manifested bad faith on the part of the employer, which creates a poisoned workplace for the employee.

What an Employee Can Do

Once an employee feels that he or she has experienced a poisoned work environment, they should report any harassing or humiliating behaviors to the superior. There is an obligation on the employer to investigate and deal with the issue. Failing to do so will enable the employee to claim constructive dismissal, where the employer makes a fundament and unilateral change to the terms of your employment. Here, the employer fails to provide you with a workplace that is free from harassment and discrimination.

However, sometimes it is too quick for an employee to claim that their workplace is a poisoned or toxic one. In General Motors of Canada Limited v Johnson, 2013 ONCA 502, the Ontario Court of Appeal illustrated the principle that “workplace becomes poisoned for the purpose of constructive dismissal only where serious wrongful behaviour is demonstrated”. The court also clarified that the employee has to show that this behavior is persistent or has been repeated over time and a reasonable person in their position would have also felt the creation of a poisoned work environment.

The lesson here for employers is that if your employee reports to you about a poisoned work environment, you should conduct a thorough investigation. If you are an employee who has been exposed to a poisoned work environment and would like to file a constructive dismissal claim, top Toronto employment lawyer, Stacey ball can help you determine your legal options. Please call us at 416-921-7997, extension 227.