In my experience, harassing an employee into quitting never spares employers from a lawsuit for wrongful dismissal.
The owner of Curzons Collingwood Club in Ottawa, learned that lesson when a co-founder tried this approach to deal with Giovanni Strizzi, general manager of the the fitness and health facility. The club was part of a Toronto-based chain, co-owned by John Cardillo. Strizzi had a demanding job with long hours and a staff of 50, not to mention a problem-plagued accounting system and increased competition to worry about.
Strizzi's efforts to convey the negative impact these issues were having on the club's staff and members went unheeded by Cardillo. Instead, the co-owner chose to blame him for the problems. In an attempt to uncover wrongdoing, Cardillo sent someone ostensibly to assist Strizzi with promotions. Nothing wrong could be found. But that failed to dissuade Cardillo.
Shortly after that, Strizzi, just back from vacation, stopped off to visit his sister-in-law who had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. When Cardillo called the club and could not reach Strizzi, he called him at home, berating and insulting him for being absent, reducing Strizzi to tears.
The abusive behaviour persisted: In one instance, Strizzi flew to Toronto only to be told his meeting had been cancelled. Cardillo became enraged, blaming Strizzi, despite that the decision to cancel was communicated to Strizzi only after he had arrived.
For Strizzi, the final straw came when, unable to find a cheap fare to Toronto from Ottawa, his proposal to not attend a meeting on new software was met by a tirade. Cardillo heaped verbal abuse on Strizzi, accusing him of causing staff to leave and destroying the club. He called him a moron, made racial slurs and threatened him with legal action. Strizzi gave notice he was leaving in 30 days and would help with the transition.
Cardillo agreed to this arrangement but when Strizzi arrived at work, Cardillo called to ask Strizzi for his home address so his lawyers could contact him. Strizzi left and sued for constructive dismissal.
Madame Justice Catherine Aitken of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice rejected the club's argument that Strizzi quit because he was unhappy, instead finding Cardillo's behaviour was grounds for Strizzi to consider himself constructively dismissed. She said no employee should be subjected to being yelled at, called names and falsely accused of ruining the business, coupled with threats. The court condemned Cardillo as a bully who unfairly blamed his employee for the club's problems and awarded Strizzi considerable damages and legal costs.
The lesson for all Canadian employers is that the courts will not seriously entertain employer defences where there is evidence of abuse of employees. Some simple steps can help avoid this situation: Be respectful Create a policy to commit to civil and respectful behaviour that requires management and staff to refrain from rude or abusive conduct.
Allow complaints Ensure the policy has a channel that enables staff to complain about inappropriate comportment.
Respond immediately Do not allow abusive behaviour to fester. It is demoralizing and will make staff feel their only recourse is litigation. Reports of abusive behaviour must be acted on quickly. Require the offending manager or employee to apologize verbally and in writing.
Live the message Ensure management follows this policy in practice in daily interactions.
Avoid delusions Banish the thought that by harassing an employee into quitting you will save on the costs of wrongful-dismissal litigation. More often than not, it boomerangs with an embarassing and more costly outcome.
Howard Levitt is senior partner of Levitt LLP, (levittllp.ca) employment and labour lawyers. He practises employment law in eight provinces and is author of The Law of Hiring in Canada.
© The Financial Post