Labour Relations for Employers

Employers and Labour Relations

There are many aspects of labour relations that businesses need to handle regardless of their size. Regardless if you are a business, organization, school board, or some other entity – if you employ people, then you need to consider labour relations.

 Regardless of the size or scope of your business, there are some basic rules that can help to prevent problems later on. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In employment matters, preparation (and sometimes labour restructuring) can prevent headache and substantial money loss further down the road.

Employment standards

One of the most useful tools an employer has is to establish a code of conduct. This code of conduct should be in accordance with the laws and should lay out what standards employees are expected to abide by. This code can be written either by a lawyer or the company, but it should be reviewed by a local labour lawyer to make sure there isn’t anything missing or non-compliant with local laws.

 Why is an employment code so important?

 It establishes rules. It sets out in plain print what behaviour a company deems acceptable and unacceptable. This makes it far easier, when an employee doesn’t abide by your employment standards to discipline an employee. This serves two primary purposes. First, it improves efficiency. Second, it can be used to establish a pattern of behaviour that may lead to discipline or dismissal for an employee.

 In Quebec, discipline and dismissal are not quick and simple matters. Employees hold many rights under the Labour Standards Act, and unions and unionized employees hold several rights under their collective agreements. Quebec is very much a place which protects workers rights, which is very important to do. However, workers being entitled to fair treatment should not mean that employers should suffer. If you have an employee, non-management or management, unionized or non-unionized, who is either actively causing problems or failing to abide by the employment standards that you have laid out then you have an employment problem.

Disciplinary Measures

There are many circumstances which require disciplinary measures. Some of the most common reasons for disciplinary measures include employees who:

  • do not obey regulations,
  • do not answer to authority,
  • do not treat others with respect,
  • do not do their jobs.

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No employer should tolerate poor behaviour or lack of performance. It can make it very difficult for businesses to continue, particularly small or medium-sized businesses where every employee has a very necessary role. In such businesses, an employee who fails to do their job can severely impact the entire business. In larger businesses or organizations, a single employee may play a less pivotal role, but that makes it no less frustrating for the manager who has to deal with an underperforming employee or their colleagues who might have to pick up their slack. This is where disciplinary measures come into effect.

 Disciplinary measures have to be proportional both to the severity of the offence and the frequency of the offence. Often disciplinary measures start with an official warning. If the employee does not cease the aberrant behaviour, this may proceed to a letter of warning or negative review or both. If the employee continues, this may become a suspension. The final disciplinary measure is dismissal. This is done when an employee has either refused all chances at correcting their behaviour or their behaviour has been so severe that dismissal is justified under the law.

 If an employee refuses to correct their behaviour, or if there is a severe situation, as an employer or manager you are entitled to discipline or dismiss that employee. However, in Quebec that is a tricky prospect. As mentioned above, employees enjoy many rights under the Labour Standards Code, and unionized employees have many rights under their collective agreements. These rights include the automatic right to pursue you before a Commissioner or Arbitrator. This pursuit comes with the very real possibility of a full reversal of any disciplinary or dismissal decisions you have made, complete with full back-pay. This course of action is frequently successful. This means that as an employer if you need to discipline or dismiss an employee for just cause you still need to make sure that you dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’. It is not enough for an employer to be right and for an employee to be wrong. An employer must also act correctly. The best way to do this is to consult a Quebec labour lawyer.

As soon as an employer realizes there is a problem they should contact a labour lawyer. This might sound self-fulfilling, a labour law firm promoting contacting a labour lawyer, but the truth is that employment issues are one of the legal areas where contacting a lawyer as early as possible prevents many headaches down the line. A labour lawyer can advise you on the best ways to strengthen your position in both the short-term and the long-term.

 If you contact a labour lawyer at the outset of a problem, they can craft a strategy and walk you through all the right steps to try and resolve a difficult situation. Whether matters can be resolved with or without litigation, you do need to ensure that your decisions can be justified and upheld, not overturned on a technicality. A labour lawyer should work with you to prepare your case, negotiate, and/or litigate. Ideally, a lawyer can help you negotiate with an employee or union to reach a settlement that is favourable and that resolves the big outstanding issues the employer is concerned about. However, the better the preparation is, the better the case. If an employee has performed badly enough that an employer feels the need to terminate their employment, it is far better to contact a lawyer early and make sure the employee has been treated fairly, than it is to pay a lot of money in back-pay and possibly have the underperforming employee reinstated.

Collective Bargaining

Negotiation is both an art and a skill. To successfully negotiate employment matters, you need expertise in employment legalities, experience and a keen understanding of strategy. These are the key to successful union negotiations.

 Unions serve a valuable role in businesses and Quebec society. However, unions have their own specialized representation and they will always push for as much as they think they can get. That’s the way they are structured. In order to come to a fair agreement that doesn’t hold you as an employer to impossible standards or make it impossible for you to fire an employee, you need to have an expert conduct the negotiations.

 Before and during union negotiations, your labour lawyer should check in with you on what you are reasonably prepared to accept as changes to the collective bargain as well as what would be detrimental to your business. If there are measures you want added in, measures you want taken out, disciplinary structures you want to outline – all of this needs to be deftly negotiated. A poor collective agreement can hamstring a business for years to come. It is far better to use a specialized lawyer and get a collective agreement that works for your organization.

Employment Complaint Investigations

Finally, there is the most complicated labour relations problem of them all: what do you do when an employee lodges a complaint against another employee?

 Harassment and discrimination are very serious issues. These issues may not directly affect a company’s bottom line, but do affect its employees wellbeing. Whether the harassment is verbal, psychological, physical or sexual, companies have to take harassment complaints seriously. Once a harassment complaint has been made, you must launch an investigation.

 However, harassment issues are also complicated for employers. If you don’t act immediately on a complaint, you are not doing right by the employee who lodged the complaint. The complainant would then have the right to pursue the company. However, if you do act on the complaint, the employee who’s been complained about may pursue the company and could claim reputation damage. Either employee could pursue you for financial compensation. Additionally, if employers launch an in-house investigation, either side could claim the employer did not act impartially.

The best way to avoid a credibility issue is to hire an outside expert to investigate the complaint. By hiring a third party to investigate, neither party can then accuse the employer of favouritism. Ideally, your outside party will have: 

  • Experience investigating psychological and sexual harassment complaints 
  • Expertise in labour law and labour relations 
  • A reputation for independence  

Your investigator should be able to get to the bottom of the complaint quickly and effectively. You should have the evidence you need to make decisions quickly, but still be able to legally justify those decisions. A labour lawyer should also give you an understanding of what your legal obligations are based on the facts ascertained.  

 When it comes to serious employment complaints the most important takeaways are these: 

  • You need to act quickly 
  • You need to act fairly 
  • Facts are key