In Ontario, an employer can terminate an employee for “just cause”, meaning they have a legitimate reason to dismiss them and the employee will not receive any termination or severance pay as a result. This is a high bar in Canadian employment law. In fact, dismissal for “just cause” has been called the capital punishment of employment law. Typically, there must be gross misconduct by the employee to warrant termination in this fashion.

What if Your Employer Fires you for “Just Cause”?

In Canada, the employer has the responsibility to prove there was cause to fire you in you are to receive no termination or severance pay. If you challenge the termination, the employer will have to show that your actions rose to this level.

Further, the employer either has to show “just cause” for the summary dismissal or else the employee will likely be considered “wrongfully dismissed”. There isn’t really a middle ground. If the court finds that you were wrongfully dismissed, then the employer will have to pay the damages to the wrongly terminated worker that stem from that. This could be viewed as risky by the employer.

What Behavior can Count as “Just Cause”?

Every situation has to be analyzed on its own merits, but there are some red flags which could prompt an employer to fire someone for cause. These include serious incompetence, fraud, theft, insolence and insubordination, to name a few. Let’s review several of these in a bit more detail.

Incompetence

A worker may be terminated for cause if they have shown “gross incompetence”. Again, this is a high bar for the employer to show. To be successful, they would have to show they gave the employee a chance to prove they could perform in their job and a reasonable opportunity to remedy the alleged incompetence. Basically, an employer has to tell the worker that their job is at risk, and give them a chance to fix the problem.

Insolence

Insolence typically means derisive, contemptuous or abusive language, generally directed at a superior. It needs to be quite serious to warrant dismissal. The courts will use a contextual approach to determine whether the employment relationship has been damaged, such that it would be inconsistent to continue the relationship.

If the behavior is so extreme that it interferes with and prejudices the safe and proper conduct of the employer’s business, courts have found that summary dismissal is justified.

Insubordination

Insubordination is an employee’s intentional refusal to obey an employer’s lawful and reasonable orders. The courts will view the entire situation to see if the order was clear, and if the employee was reasonably expected to obey it.

The employer must show that the employee willfully obeyed an order. The order must be reasonable and unambiguous. If you didn’t follow instructions because they were unclear and vague, that may not count as insubordination.

The courts may also be interested in the reason why someone obeyed an order that the employer thought was clear. Context matters, and there are many factors which can play a role in determining whether acts of insubordination rise to the level of gross misconduct.

Is One Act Enough to Warrant Dismissal for Just Cause?

Generally, the answer is no. A single act of misconduct would have to be quite extreme to warrant summary dismissal. The courts are not very keen to allow this, in part because of the important role that employment has in a person’s identity.

Progressive discipline is much more likely, where the employee receives clear warnings explaining their infraction. They will be given the opportunity to fix their behavior, and if they do not change their ways, their employer may escalate to terminating them.