Criticising your boss can be perilous to your job

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

Employee’s angry letter cost her the case

Still upset following an angry confrontation with her boss, Maria Van Der Meij wasn’t about to go quietly. Penning a letter to her employer’s board of directors, Van Der Meij criticised her boss and bemoaned the fact that she could no longer perform in her role. However, instead of simply authoring a letter of complaint, ultimately she had authored her own legal misfortune.
For nine years, Van Der Meij laboured as a settlement coordinator and supervisor at the Victoria Immigrant & Refugee Centre Society in Victoria, B.C. Burdened by a heavy caseload and plagued with funding shortfalls, the Centre’s employees were stressed and overwhelmed, and tensions often ran high.
When the errors of one of her staff mounted, Van Der Meij met with the Centre’s Executive Director, Carlos Gaete, to deal with the problem, but the two clashed about the appropriate discipline. Believing that Gaete was acting improperly during the meeting and that the stress had finally taken a toll on her health, Van Der Meij left the office, cancelled her appointments and went to see her doctor.
Days later, while off work on sick leave, Van Der Meij wrote to the Centre’s Board of Directors, angrily accusing Gaete of lacking leadership and ethical standards. She claimed Gaete was unappreciative and cowardly, and that her job had therefore become impossible to perform.
Instead of dealing with the merits of her grievances, the Board swiftly responded by accepting what it claimed was Van Der Meij’s resignation. It argued that if she was unable to continue on in her role, she had effectively resigned from her employment. But Van Der Meij had not intended to resign, so they next met in court.
At trial, the Centre argued that if Van Der Meij had not resigned, then at the least, her letter to the Board was wildly improper, and as a result, she had jeopardized her own continued employment. The Centre had hit upon a successful argument in this case.
Justice Janet Bruce, who wrote the decision, rejected the Centre’s argument that Van Der Meij had resigned based on the letter she wrote to the Board. Without clear evidence of a resignation, courts should be reluctant to infer that an employee had intended to resign, she wrote. However, the Centre was correct in concluding that by spitefully criticising her boss, Van Der Meij had made the employment relationship impossible to continue. In those circumstances, the Centre was at liberty to terminate her without further obligation.
While the court accepted that employees are generally “entitled to criticize superiors without fear of immediate dismissal”, when such criticism goes over the edge, an employer is not required to tolerate it. Here, while Van Der Meij’s complaints may have been justified, her approach to voicing them was fatal to her job. Had she attempted to resolve the issue with Gaete without first writing to the Board, the Board would have been paying her settlement cheques now, rather than cashing them.
Overtly criticising your boss can be perilous to your job. While criticism may be reasonably justified or even provoked, employees won’t find favour from the courts where the tone or manner of the criticism becomes disrespectful or otherwise incompatible with continued employment.