By Howard Levitt
In the short term, following orders is the appropriate response until you are ready to resign and sue
As the B.C. Court of Appeal has stated: “An employer has a right to determine how its business should be conducted. It may lay down any procedures it thinks advisable, as long as they are neither contrary to law nor dishonest nor dangerous to the health of the employees and are within the ambit of the job for which any particular employee was hired. It is not for the employee nor for the court to consider the wisdom of the procedures.”
In an Ontario case, an employee resented being ordered to report to a new superior. The employee became increasingly defensive and devoted her energy to justifying her views rather than doing what she was told. As the court noted, “Instead of prompting her to improve her methods or attitudes, constructive criticism either stung her into some ill-conceived counterattack or caused her to retreat into a shell or washed completely over her without her being aware of it.” She also challenged her boss’s authority in a “belligerent argumentative fashion” and spread false rumours about management. She was warned and fired with cause.
These, of course, were all instances of actual disobedience, even insubordination, in which the employer’s authority was flaunted. Are there ever circumstances where you can refuse to obey?
That B.C. Court of Appeal judgement above largely captured those. No one can be asked to perform an illegal act. No one can be forced to take steps which put themselves or others in physical danger. No one can be forced to lie. But that case’s last exception is not entirely accurate.
Of course, if an employee is asked to indefinitely change their job in a manner fundamentally inconsistent with what they were hired to do, particularly if the new functions are of lower status, that might be a constructive dismissal. But still, in the short term, following orders is the appropriate response until you are ready to resign and sue.
But the risk of constructive dismissal actions are that a court will not agree with your position and the employee will have resigned and end up recovering nothing, even having to pay a share of the employer’s legal fees. Courts are loathe to find a constructive dismissal unless the circumstances are truly egregious and attempts to remediate are first made.
So, as per that union maxim, when given an order, obey now and grieve or sue later is always the safest course.