Matter of "just cause"

Date: 2009
Author: Daniel A. Lublin
Publication: Metro

Employees cannot refuse reasonable directions

“The pen is mightier than the sword” – Edward Bulwer-Lytton
Too often employees fail to pick their battles. Just ask Gary Gordon. By refusing to take on additional responsibilities, he lost his job – and recently, he lost his case against his ex-employer.
Gary Gordon was his employer’s only delivery driver. According to him, he was told that he would have to take on a “second job” working as the early morning shipper, which would require an additional few hours each morning preparing for his deliveries. Believing that he did not have the time to add to his already busy day, Gordon refused the assignment and was told that he should leave.
Not surprisingly, Gordon’s employer told a vastly different story. In an effort to stem lost inventory, it asked Gordon to sign off on whatever was loaded into his truck so that he could ensure the correct merchandise was being shipped. Although Gordon initially complied, he then refused, stating that it wasn’t his job. Gordon was told that if he wasn’t prepared to oblige, he would no longer be needed. Disturbed by this turn of events, Gordon sued.
Employees cannot always be forced to take on additional duties. If those new responsibilities can be viewed as a creating a new position, the employee may be able to reject them and insist on compliance with their original job. That decision, however, must be reasonable.
Recently, an Ontario judge rejected Gordon’s argument that the new responsibilities amounted to a “second job.” Since he was the company’s only driver, it was unlikely that he would be asked to add a few extra hours of work to his already busy schedule, as this would delay the company’s deliveries. Further, it was unreasonable for him to refuse to comply with his employer’s directions, because they were generally consistent with his duties as a driver. Gordon’s case was dismissed because he incorrectly assumed that the new task amounted to a fundamental change in his job.
The message for employees is clear: Carefully consider whether you can decline new directions. Mistakenly interpreting a change in your job as being major will rebound poorly on you, not your employer. Pick your battles prudently. The court was swayed because Gordon’s refusal came against the backdrop of the company’s legitimate efforts to reduce its losses.