By Howard Levitt
Loose lips sink more than ships. When Laurence Mok swore at Tanya Sweeting and told her that he was tired of looking at her ugly face, the last thing that he expected was a lawsuit, let alone having to pay a hefty damages.
A plastic surgeon based in Peterborough, Ont., Dr. Mok ran a small but busy office in which Sweeting was the key nurse and office manager. She performed both jobs so well over a 22-year period that Mok viewed her as indispensable.
But the dual demands took a toll on Sweeting. Secretarial assistance was not consistent and she began to feel overworked. Her husband called Dr. Mok’s wife, threatening to pull her out. Although Mrs. Mok pitched in at the office, Sweeting was still staying late and working through lunch.
Nonetheless, Sweeting was prepared to continue with Dr. Mok until he retired, a vague possibility he alluded to on occasion. She enjoyed the job and earned income greater that what was available elsewhere.
In the interim, Dr. Mok directed Sweeting to look into electronic medical recording or EMR with a view to moving into a paperless, fully computerized office. Although he broached the subject three times with her, Sweeting took no action, angering him.
A brief meeting ensued, in which Dr. Mok upbraided Sweeting about the EMR delay. Sweeting asked him why he wanted to take it on so close to retirement, noting its expense. Dr. Mok erupted in a profanity-laced fury, waving his arms in the air and slamming books on the desk.
He accused her of being resistant to change. Sweeting protested that she simply didn’t have the time. Dr. Mok told her to get out and that he was sick and tired of coming into the office and looking at her ugly face.
Sweeting left the meeting in tears, never to return and sued for constructive dismissal.
Dr. Mok’s defence was that this one inappropriate incident in 22 years was insufficient for Sweeting to regard herself as constructively dismissed. Justice Myrna Lack of the Ontario Superior Court disagreed — as did the Ontario Court of Appeal. Dr. Mok had a duty to treat his long-term employee with dignity and civility. His behaviour and hostility was so egregious that Sweeting had a right to treat the employment agreement as repudiated and not await a formal termination. The trial judge’s award of 24 months of pay was similarly upheld.
The message from our courts is unequivocal — the days of the omnipotent boss terrorizing staff with impunity are over.
Employers can take the following steps to reduce the risks of managerial misconduct:
1. Mandate a policy on respect and dignity wherein management commits itself to respectful treatment of staff in the workplace. That message must permeate the organizational culture.
2. Deal with offenders: Employees who know that their management will take disciplinary action are likely to behave properly.
3. Empower staff: Employees who are being improperly berated should be aware of their ability to withdraw from the situation without penalty.
4. Require an apology: any manager who misconducts themselves should be compelled to apologize to the offended employee.
5. Follow up on any incident: Dr. Mok did not contact Sweeting after her departure. The court considered this a factor in reinforcing Sweetman’s view that she had been effectively terminated. Had he done so, the conclusion to that relationship may not have ended in court.