Careers: what is constructive dismissal and what can you do about it?

This is something I’ve wanted to write about for a very long time. I didn’t even know what the term was until last December when I did some research into options for my current employment situation. When I stumbled upon a YouTube channel of an American lawyer called “what is constructive dismissal” I stopped in my tracks, broke down crying and realized that I had a been a victim of this for over a year.

I made a comment on a Reddit discussion last night and woke up to about 50 messages and comments this morning that I took the time to read through. It saddened me how many people shared similar stories of what I went through in my last position. The comment received 4,900 upvotes and FIVE awards. I thought this discussion deserved its own blog post. I’ve held off writing about this for so long because I am still in the process of filing a union grievance – something I cannot do while on medical leave.

Bad Bosses

We’ve all worked with terrible people at some point in our lives. Whether it’s the classic narcissistic boss who loves to humiliate their employees, or micromanagers who love to harass their employees on a daily basis – I think it’s safe to say – we’ve all been there.

Unfortunately, having worked in the public sector as a contractor for eight years, I had more than my fair share of terrible bosses. But it wasn’t until 2016-2017, when I was working in a full time position, that I really got to experience this first hand. I had a mental breakdown – on an almost weekly basis because of this boss. And then I found out that the bullying stemmed down from an even higher position – senior and executive management.

Not only was I doing work far above my paygrade, but I was reporting to three senior managements, a full team of staff, and was the victim of constant bullying from the management team. This had a tremendous impact on my self-esteem and overall mental health. Bullying is NEVER okay. We all got enough of that in school, thanks.

Humiliation in the workplace

One senior manager knew that I was very introverted and didn’t like having the spotlight on me. At one team meeting, held at a manager’s condo, she sat smugly in her chair and said. “Wendy, I don’t trust that you can capture these notes properly. I want you to read each statement that you’ve captured to us. So, we’re all in agreement.”

The rest of the team, including my hiring director, shuffled their feet and avoided eye contact with me. Not one person stood up for me. Even though I had been a “professional note taker” for a negotiation committee for two years – verbatim minutes. I actually went home and cried that night and called in sick the next day. I couldn’t get out of bed. I was sick for about a week after that experience.

On one contract job in health, that I absolutely LOVED, I was volunteered to support a steering committee. It wasn’t my first committee, and I loved this kind of work. It was what I excelled at. But this one day, the video conferencing equipment crapped out during the meeting. I was called in to troubleshoot and had IT on the phone with me.

“I can’t believe this is happening. How do you even have this job?” said the director of the meeting. The whole room went silent. I apologized, ran out of the room and sat in the bathroom crying for my lunch break. When my boss whom I love dearly found me – she said, “You’re never working for her again.”

It was so rewarding when that same director was fired from her job. Apparently, I wasn’t her only victim. And the entire department knew it. What’s sickening is how long these people get away with this behaviour.

Before I get any further into this – let me first off explain what constructive dismissal is – and then I’ll go into some examples so you can learn to recognize these traits. The point of this post is not to lay blame on my employer who will remain anonymous, I am writing this to help educate others who may not realize they are working in a toxic work environment.

Let me tell you – leaving that job was the best decision I ever made. Even if it means relying on health benefits for a while – and not knowing when my next paycheck is coming in – I know in my heart, I can never go back to that line of work.

What is constructive dismissal?

According to the Government of Canada website, constructive dismissal refers to a situation where the employer has not directly fired an employee. Instead, the employer changes the working conditions or terms of agreement which usually hurts or hinders the employee’s performance or capability to do their job well.

In some cases, this is performed through micromanagement. Where employees were previously allowed to have “free range” or work with minimal supervision, the employee is instead micro-managed by one or more staff. Some responsibilities may be taken away and assigned to other staff. While in other cases, the employee may be overloaded with new responsibilities that are above or below their pay grade. In other situations, the employee may be punished by losing vacation time, or being docked in pay – these are big no-no’s in the corporate world.

I’m going to cover these points in more detail and give some personal examples.

If you’ve ever watched the movie “Office Space” which is a hilarious 90’s comedy about working in cubicles, then you’re probably familiar with Milton and the red stapler. My job got so bad, that I would often reference this movie on a daily basis. To the point, I even had a red stapler on my desk. Of course, this humour would go unnoticed most of the time.

And yes, we had been moved around this many times. Even I got shoved into a filing room with a coworker. At least we had a door and could close it when we were having a bad day – which was often.

I highly recommend watching this movie for shits and giggles. In fact, I think I’ll pop some popcorn and watch it tonight. The whole movie – I can just so relate to it. I realized there is more to life than the Monday-Friday and 9-5 grind. Which TikTok reminded me recently, it’s never 9-5. It’s either 8:00 – 4:30 or 9:00 – 5:30. How lame is that?

Signs that your employer may be trying to “get rid of you”

These are some warning signs that I recognized early on in the office. Now, this may not always be a case of constructive dismissal. It could just be a simple case of bad management or people who don’t know what they’re doing. But if you’ve experienced any of these things at work – you might want to get your resume updated and start looking for work elsewhere. It’s always better to leave a job willingly, then to be fired for something that isn’t your fault.

When coworkers stop talking to you

This was when I noticed something fishy was going on in my last job. I had gotten along well with a coworker who sat next to me. Or at least I thought I had. We made plans to go to a concert together – which she backed out last minute. Luckily, I had made backup plans and found someone else who was willing to go with me.

We used to chat quite a bit in the messenger app that we used about work issues – and then one day, I noticed she started replying with “yep” or “nope” answers. That got me suspicious right away. If I messaged her with a question, she’d run down the hall to my manager’s office and they’d have a closed door meeting. So, I stopped using the app all together. Any questions I had from that day, I sent her an email – so I had it in writing. She stopped coming by my desk to chat.

We were supposed to be working as a team. But in realty, we were both doing the same job. I think what it came down to, was we had too many admin staff – too much overlap – and they had no idea how to streamline the work. You could say there were “too many cooks in the kitchen.”

Another week went by, and I noticed that other coworkers started avoiding me. One was openly hostile. “Ugh, you’re always sick,” she said and rolled her eyes at me. The newly promoted manager who wasn’t supposed manage staff, was also hard to get a hold of. Her door was always closed when I went to speak to her.

I was left out of important team meetings or would walk by her office to see the whole team having a discussion without me. I can’t begin to describe how this made me feel. I even started researching “how to tell when you’re going to get fired” on google because I had nothing else to do while at work.

Getting sick was a blessing in disguise. I think it was my body’s way of rejecting the office.

Performance issues – that were never a problem before

One of the key things to worry about is when your management team suddenly has new performance issues or concerns that were never a problem before. They may start to introduce new procedures or policies to “make sure you are doing your work properly.”

In my case, I noticed that when I returned to work after becoming very ill with bronchitis, my manager was sending me short emails that were very snippy. “This is your responsibility,” or “This form was missed because of you, and resulted in this employee in not getting paid.”

Neither of these things were true. I had done my part of the work – the forms had sat on the desk of the director who almost never had time to review the forms or sign them. But somehow – this was my fault and my “fuck up.”

I would later learn that the manager was using these emails as records for human resources. She sent them as evidence that would be used as a performance measure.

You’re left out of important team meetings

This was an issue with this new manager who I’ll call Jennifer. Jennifer would send out emails to our team and would never copy me on them. It got to the point that I even had a meeting with the director about this. I said, “it’s really hard to know how to support my team, when I’m never included in the communication about the projects we’re being assigned,” I said. My director agreed and I was supposed to be copied on all materials related to team projects.

Imagine my surprise when checking my bosses email, to see a “I love you team,” email from Jennifer. She had sent it to everyone BUT ME! This hit like a punch in the gut. And it happened after coming back from the week off I had due to bronchitis.

I think at this point, my team thought I was faking illnesses. Even though they could hear me coughing like a barking dog. I should have been at home or in the hospital. But I was trying to work since I had run out of sick time.

When I brought this issue up to Jennifer in an email and asked if I could be included in her communications, she replied, “I’ve included you on emails you need to be included in,” she said. And that one was shared with the HR team as well.

Going from “minimal supervision” to “micromanagement”

This is a comment I saw a lot on Reddit this morning and this is something I experienced first hand too. I went from having a director who allowed me to work independently, to working with a team of managers who had no idea what they were doing.

Booking a hotel room, suddenly became this huge process where I had to get approval from THREE staff before confirming with the hotel. I had always done this anyway before – checked with the staff for their preferences before confirming. Our team traveled a lot and this was a huge part of my job. It was also something I had done for nearly fifteen years prior without any complications. But because the hotels started making mistakes on hotel reservations, it became OUR fault as admins. Here are some actual complaints I received from one manager:

“When I got to the hotel, there wasn’t any power,” she said. “I also had to pay for parking.”

I looked at her and said, “Well, the hotel didn’t let me know that when I booked it for you. Remember when we talked about it and you said to choose the hotel closest to your location? This was the closest I could get in our budget range.” But that was never good enough for her.

If something happened at the hotel on the weekends, you could bet that my personal phone would ring on a Friday night asking where all the paperwork was – even though the hotel had it. And more often than not, staff had copies in their emails too.

Then it wasn’t just about hotel rooms – suddenly everything I had my hands on, required “a final set of eyes on it” even though that was literally, my job.

And that was another thing – the office refused to buy cell phones for the admin. We weren’t supposed to use our personal phones for work – but somehow – we were always contacted on the weekends about work.

Rewarded with more work – or punished with less work

I swear, there must be a handbook for bad bosses because this is a classic move and one I read a lot of stories on today. Good employees were often rewarded with more work – for the same pay. Or in my case, I was already doing policy level work at administrative pay. I was often doing the work of three or four people because we were always short-staffed. Then I got assigned to two teams – which was done without consulting my union.

This happens so much! This was a direct violation of my union agreement. But of course, I needed a job, so I agreed to it. Looking back, I should have fought this harder. Because it was that merge to the other team – that’s when shit started falling apart. Once again, we had too many personalities, and too many “cooks in the kitchen.”

On the opposite end, if an employer is trying to get rid of an employee, they may start taking away your responsibilities until you are left with nothing to do. At that point, then the employer will have an excuse to let you go. “We don’t have enough work for you, so we’re going to let you go.”

However, this becomes a problem when you are a part of a union. They can’t just fire you without just cause. They can however, make your life miserable, take away your responsibilities, devalue your service, and create a hostile work environment – in hopes that you will quit. This my friends, is the very definition of constructive dismissal.

I think I’ll do another post on hostile work environments – as this post is already getting too long.

So, what can I do about this? I can’t just quit.

Human Resources – they are not your friend. If you complain to HR, like I did early on, then the complaint will get back to your management team. If you file a grievance, and submit a complaint in writing, this is shared with the team you worked with. Nothing is confidential. HR works for the employer in most situations. Smaller companies may be different. But for every major organization I worked with — the HR department is there for the employer.

What you can do is document EVERYTHING. Write down dates, times and a summary of events. Try to get witnesses who are willing to testify on your behalf. A written statement is not enough. I provided this to my HR when I found out a former senior manager slandered my name to a coworker. The written statement was not enough to qualify for worker’s comp. Don’t do this on your work computer. Use your phone or write everything down when you get home.

If you are a union employee, then contact your union. Constructive dismissal is a serious issue that can be fought – if you have the evidence to back yourself up. In my case, I was a victim of a few things – slander in the workplace, bullying, harassment, and disability discrimination. That last one was a huge one – it’s a violation of human rights.

If you are a non union employee, you may want to consider legal counsel. But note – depending on who you work for you – this may not get the results you want. In my case, many lawyers wouldn’t even accept my case because of who my employer was. They claimed “conflict of interest” because they often worked with my employer.

I finally hired a lawyer in December 2020, paid a retainer fee, and he said, “Oh, so I can’t help you after all. You’ll need to go through your union,” he said. Trust me, I was not happy — he charged me $1500 just to tell me that much.

Suing your employer isn’t always the best route. This can get you blacklisted in your career. I’ve seen this mentioned many times on TikTok – and I fear this has happened to me in my line of work as well. But that’s okay, it’s time for a change anyway. Getting a lawyer may be feasible, but often, it isn’t. Even I will have to attend a hearing at some point if I choose to follow through with my grievance – which can take up to TWO years to fight.

Life is short

The main take away from this experience in what I have learned is this. Life is too short. I worked at a job for five years with people who started off as friends. But the moment things started heading south, and I was diagnosed with a disability that required time off work — these people turned on me.

While they said they “cared about me” and was “concerned” – I felt the opposite. Friends wouldn’t threaten to put me on a learning plan for a job that I had done for FOUR years and was over qualified for. Why would the department send all new staff to me to train only to tell others I was a terrible worker? I was just glad I had my union rep with me.

Being bullied and harassed for four years, by various managers, was enough to send me to therapy for a year. I had lost all confidence in myself and my ability to do my job. Even though I had worked in the field for fifteen years. It took almost a year, to regain that confidence in myself. I’m still burned out. I know I can never return to admin work. I’m not sure when I’ll ever be able to return to normal work again. With the migraines and anxiety, it makes it difficult to hold down a full job.

So, if there’s any companies out there looking for a freelance blogger to talk about these kinds of subjects, I’m your gal. I love this kind of “work” but am doing this for free right now. I also love marketing and E-Commerce.

In the end, you have to look out for you. You’ve only got one shot at this life. If you’re spending 40-50 hours a week with people, then make sure these people value you for the work you do. I’ve had some great experiences working with people who are still friends today. But the gaslighting and abuse in the workplace, can stay with you for years.

Have you been a victim of gaslighting or constructive dismissal in the workplace? If so, I want to hear about you. I’ll be writing up a summary of all the responses I got over the last 24 hours. I’m overwhelmed at the amount of support people have shown!

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