Of all the ways in which an employment relationship can terminate, there is likely none more detrimental to an employee than the dreaded dismissal for cause or for “just cause.”

A dismissal for cause occurs when an employer claims that they have no obligation to provide an employee with reasonable notice of their dismissal (or pay in lieu of reasonable notice) because the employee has engaged in some form of wrongful conduct causing an irreparable breach of the employment relationship. The impugned conduct may be a single particularly serious incident, or an accumulation of incidents. Whichever the case, an employer making this claim has a significant burden to bear in order to establish that a dismissal for cause is warranted.

Courts in Ontario have broadly approached the question of whether cause existed to terminate an employment relationship by examining whether the employee’s conduct caused a breach in the employment relationship by violating an essential term of the relationship or by destroying the employer’s trust in the employee.

The employer’s response to the alleged breach is relevant as well. Courts have, among other things, examined whether the employer previously condoned the conduct that forms the basis of the allegation of cause or whether there was a less severe disciplinary action which could have reasonably been taken in the circumstances. Generally speaking, the courts have favoured less severe forms of punishment, particularly for employees with many years of service or in cases where the employer had an established policy of progressive discipline.

While each allegation of cause must be assessed within its own unique circumstances, there are some common scenarios that have supported a finding that just cause existed, including:

  • An incident (or incidents) of workplace violence or harassment
  • Dishonesty, including as theft or fraud
  • Serious breaches of trust, such as misconduct that promotes the employee’s interests at the expense of the employer’s
  • Insubordination, such as refusal to comply with explicit instructions, policies and procedures
  • Chronic absenteeism

An employer who relies on an unfounded or fabricated allegation of cause in order to try to avoid compensating a dismissed employee does so at their own risk; they may be exposing themselves to claims for bad faith dismissal in addition to claims for wrongful dismissal.

As an employee, if you have been dismissed for cause it is important to seek legal advice before accepting such a dismissal or signing any agreement that may impact your ability to pursue a legal claim in the future. As an employer, it is important to seek legal advice if you are contemplating dismissing an employee for cause to ensure you are doing so appropriately and have adequately protected yourself.

If you find yourself in either scenario, you should speak with an experienced, local employment lawyer to learn more about your options.

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