With a Canadian federal election recently behind us, it is safe to say that politics has been a hot topic of discussion in some Canadian workplaces. A Quebec employer was recently reminded, at significant cost, that employees are entitled to express their political opinions at work and may not be fired for doing so.
During various discussions at work around the time of the 2012 provincial election in Quebec, an employee strongly expressed his political views to his colleagues. His views were not shared by a number of those colleagues and were considered offensive by some. The next day, the employee was called into a meeting at which he was told that the company did not need “politicians” in the workplace. He was then fired. On the employee’s record of employment, the employer indicated he had been fired for “intimidation.”
The employee brought a complaint alleging unjust dismissal under the Labour Standards Act of Quebec. At the hearing, the employer admitted the employee’s dismissal was without just and sufficient cause. The Commission des relations du travail therefore ordered that the employee be reinstated. The outstanding issues between the parties included the amount and type of damages to which the employee was entitled.
After considering the submissions of the parties, the commissioner awarded the employee an indemnity for lost wages for the period of time between his dismissal and the date of reinstatement as well as moral damages and punitive damages.
With regard to moral damages, the commissioner found that the employer had acted abusively by being untruthful about the reason for dismissal on the employee’s record of employment. As a result, the employer was ordered to pay $10,000 in moral damages.
With regard to punitive damages, the commissioner concluded that the employer had acted in a highly reprehensible manner. In addition, the commissioner noted that the employer had refused to acknowledge its wrongdoing until after the employee had incurred the costs and expenses of litigation. Given these factors, as well as the large size and financial capacity of the employer, the commissioner awarded the employee $25,000 in punitive damages.
In total, the employer was ordered to pay over $90,000 to the employee.
Lessons for employers
Although the result in this case was driven by a highly specific set of facts, it is important to note that political belief or activity is a protected ground of discrimination under human rights legislation in many—although not all—jurisdictions in Canada.
Where it is a protected ground, employers should carefully consider what actions, if any, can be taken when employees get involved in political discussions at work. To the extent such discussions do not become disruptive or interfere with productivity, employees are entitled to express their views and convictions even when they are not shared by all.