What do I do if I’m working in a toxic work environment?

Over the years, laws in Canada have evolved to protect workers from toxic work environments.  Today, more Canadians than ever understand the legal right to a safe and healthy workplace that is free of bullying and harassment or discrimination under human rights law.

That said, we hear from a lot of clients having these issues who don’t know what to do about it.  They’re asking, do I confront my coworker or manager on my own, or go to HR?  Do I go to court, or somewhere else?  Would it be a mistake to just quit?

This blog article provides practical advice to employees who think they might be in a toxic workplace and are wondering what they should do about it.

Is your employer actually breaking the law?

The first thing to think about is whether your employer is actually breaking the law.  There’s generally three ways a toxic workplace can run afoul of the law:

  • Constructive dismissal: when you’re hired, whether or not you sign a contract or not, the employer’s obligated to treat you with a basic level of dignity and respect. If they don’t, you can sue them for wrongful dismissal. You go to the courts for this.
  • Health and safety: Workers compensation law, and health and safety regulations, mean that employers are obligated to maintain a healthy and safe work environment – including environments that are free from bullying and harassment. You go to occupational health and safety agencies for this (for example, WorkSafeBC in BC).
  • Discrimination under human rights law: it’s against human rights legislation for employers to discriminate against workers on “prohibited grounds” such as sex, disability, race, or age. You go to human rights commissions or tribunals for this.
  • Overworked or not paid fairly: you work too much or are not paid enough for the time you are working. You go to employment standards tribunals for this.

Not everything an employer does that’s unpleasant is necessarily against the law.

While yelling and swearing and belittling employees crosses a line, courts and tribunals won’t compensate you or stop employers if they’ve being insensitive or impolite.  It’s also important to remember that, generally speaking, employers are allowed to direct their workforces as they see fit so long as they follow the laws and any collective agreements in place. This means that a court or tribunal won’t find that an employer has harassed an employee if the employer’s simply assigning work or criticizing the employer’s work. The exception in BC for bullying and harassment under occupational health and safety policy, namely, employers taking reasonable action to manage and direct workers, reflects this principle.

Of course, an employer is not allowed to treat an employee differently based on a discriminated ground under human rights legislation.  This means, for example, that an employer can’t treat one employee differently from another just because they’re a different race or sex.

Whether what you’re experiencing at work is against the law really depends on the facts. If you’re preparing to see a lawyer to talk about the way you’ve been treated at work, drop the labels of bullying and harassment and discrimination.  These words can mean different things to different people.  Instead, be prepared to talk about what happened to you by describing exactly what happened. Using the journalists’s “Five W’s” can be helpful: Who did something to you, what did they do, when did they do it, where did they do it, and how did they do it.

Do you want to keep working for your employer?

Before you consider what to do next, it’s a good idea to make an honest assessment of whether you’d like to see if you can work with your employer to improve the situation at work or whether you’re done and you want to leave.

If you want to stay, it’s almost always a good idea to work with your co-worker or employer to see if the situation can be addressed internally before going to a tribunal.  (If you’re unionized, of course, consult your union first.)  This can help you look more reasonable in the employer’s eyes, and is usually easier on work relationships.

If you take this route, look at your employer’s policies for guidance.  Have policies been broken?  Do the policies say what you should do in this situation?

When you approach other people to discuss your issues, set up a meeting ahead of time instead of approaching them out of the blue.  When you speak, be calm, be polite, and ensure that you’re listening carefully to the side of the story. Keep careful notes of what happened in the meeting.

You are not the only priority of human resources

If you raise an issue about a toxic work environment, you may wind up discussing the issue with someone from human resources.  Human Resources (“HR”) professionals are trained in workplace law and best practices.  They can be a useful resource for employees who are experiencing what they feel to be bullying and harassment or discrimination at work.  They can mediate disputes.  They also can hire outside investigators on occasion to investigate complaints.

However, it’s not the job of an HR professional to represent or advocate for workers in workplace disputes.  In fact, on many occasions it will be the first priority of an HR professional to protect the company and not any one individual.

Because of this, employees should be careful when meeting with human resources about issues they’re experiencing in the workplace. If you’re unionized, always bring a steward with you.  Do not confide in HR; assume everything you tell the HR professional will be shared with management. Take careful notes of the meeting during the meeting or as soon as you’re able to. If HR gives you something to sign, bring it to your union or a lawyer.

When do you see a lawyer?

If you think there are serious issues at your workplace, it’s a good idea to consult with a lawyer.  This is especially true if you’re thinking of just quitting or taking a package to leave the workplace.  Your career, and the time and effort you’ve already spent in your job, is important. You deserve to be fully informed.

DISCLAIMER: The content of this article, and this website generally, is not intended as legal advice and cannot be relied upon as legal advice.  To provide legal advice on your problem, a lawyer must first understand your specific situation.

We offer free half-hour consultations in person at our Coquitlam office or virtually via software. To book a consultation, please give us a call toll-free 1 (877) 708-8350 or locally (604) 475-0041. You can also book your free consultation online here.