Sunday, July 31, 2011

'Bullied' Manager was Constructively Dismissed

In the recent case of Strizzi v. Curzons Management Associates Inc., a manager took on what is always a difficult hurdle in wrongful dismissal litigation: Overcoming the fact that he resigned. But he did so successfully.

Mr. Strizzi started as a sales representative in a health and fitness centre in Ottawa, but within about a year rose to the position of General Manager, where he remained until he resigned about five years later. In that time, the Club deteriorated, as Head Office failed to (despite Strizzi's recommendations) upkeep and renovate the Club. As well, billing issues began to arise, and - despite recommendations from Strizzi - Head Office failed to take any measures to address these. Membership waned in light of the increasingly competitive Ottawa market, and the profitable club slowly went into the red. Other issues included Head Office frequently tinkering and modifying Strizzi's remuneration package, excessive hours, and excessively harsh behaviour by Strizzo's supervisor. One of the Club's managers could no longer handle the atmosphere, and submitted a resignation letter which praised Strizzi's "compassion, guidance and motivation", but expressed that the climate of the workplace was not conducive to his continued health.

Finally, on September 30th, 2003, a telephone argument between Strizzi and his supervisor led to Strizzi's resignation.

The text of the decision portrays Strizzi as an exceptionally hard-working manager who did his best to run the Club, but was thwarted at every turn by a lack of support from the Head Office. Moreover, Strizzi's supervisor, Cardillo, is described as being a "bully", treating Strizzi excessively harshly.

The most serious work-related problem that Strizzi had, however, was in having to deal with Cardillo who was, to put it bluntly, a bully. Strizzi had experienced Cardillo’s unreasonableness and aggressivity during the telephone call in March 2003 which had left Strizzi and his wife in tears. He had again experienced it during the interchange at the beginning of September in regard to the September launch meeting. Cardillo’s behaviour during the opening few minutes of the September 30, 2003 telephone conversation brought home to Strizzi the impossibility of his continuing to work in an environment where his employer yelled at him, called him all kinds of names, falsely accused him of ruining his business, refused to have a dialogue or engage in reasonable, civil conversation, told him repeatedly how useless he was, made threats, and generally treated Strizzi in a way that no employee should be subjected to.
In wrongful dismissal litigation involving small- or mid-sized businesses, this is remarkably common. Involving larger businesses, it is occasionally seen in managers who are not particularly closely supervised and/or are exceptional producers. Aggressive type-A personalities who can be less-than-forgiving when things don't go their way. It can be great for growing a business, and there are definitely times and places where aggression is very useful and productive, but employee relations can require a different approach. The lesson to be learned from such cases is that an employee is not a punching bag. The employment relationship is not conducive to angry speech or behaviour, in either direction. There is appropriate discipline for employee misconduct, but this will never include profanity or name-calling.

Even in this case, where Cardillo's conduct had persisted over years without a complaint by Strizzo, this was still sufficient for Strizzo to make out a constructive dismissal case.

Food for Thought

This matter took nearly 8 years to come to trial, and Strizzo ultimately achieved a $45,000 damage award. $10,000 of it was for wages owing, which the employer had contested until the opening of trial. That is likely to hurt when it comes to the costs award, but costs awards are still just a portion of the actual legal expenses, and those legal expenses could easily be well into the six-digit range.


This blog is not intended to, and does not, provide legal advice to any person in respect of any particular legal issue, and does not create a solicitor-client relationship with any readers, but rather provides general legal information. If you have a legal issue or possible legal issue, contact a lawyer.

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