Poisoned Work Environment? What Can You Do?

Work is often our home away from home.

Most of us spend at least eight hours a day at work, which is more than we often get to spend with our families. So, who wants to work in an unpleasant work environment, right?

Let’s face it: many of us would do very little. Maybe we’d air our frustrations with our partners, but we’d not rock the boat at work.

However, if the work environment rose to the level of persistent insulting or degrading comments or actions that are directed against an employee, it could be a poisoned work environment.

In the Ontario Court of Appeal case General Motors of Canada Limited v. Johnson, the court gave some guidance in regards to what constitutes a poisoned work environment:

“Moreover, except for particularly egregious, stand-alone incidents, a poisoned workplace is not created, as a matter of law, unless serious wrongful behaviour sufficient to create a hostile or intolerable work environment is persistent or repeated”

An example of an egregious, stand-alone incident is what very recently happened to an Edmonton, Alta. employee who received a Valentine from his workplace that was defaced with a homophobic slur.

The young man’s mother took to social media to voice her outrage over the incident.


Even Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson had a reaction when he tweeted: “Discrimination based on sexual orientation is unacceptable.”

Social media is one way to deal with a poisoned work environment but it’s not a good one, because there could be legal issues surrounding what an employee posts about their employer.

The proper way to deal with the issue is to talk to the human resource department at work and/or one’s supervisor/manager. Many workplaces have policies against behaviour that can accumulate into a poisoned work environment and they have to act to maintain a discrimination-free work environment.

If it is not covered in a workplace policy, then the prohibition against a poisoned work environment is likely covered by provincial/territorial human rights law.

For example, the Ontario Human Rights Code forbids the creation of a poisoned work environment. The Alberta Human Rights Act also prohibits a poisoned work environment based on the grounds protected in the act.

In other words, a complaint can be made to the human rights commission of your province or territory, if your employer doesn’t remedy the poisoned work environment.

However, as with the Alberta act, the poisoned environment has to be connected to a protected ground under the act or code, otherwise a person may have little luck in succeeding at the human rights tribunal.

See: Tribunal dismissed perceived learning disability claim, despite insults claimants endured from employer

For instance, in the Alberta Human Rights Tribunal Case Lalwani v. ClaimsPro Inc., Kishor Lalwani complained to the tribunal in regards to the poisoned work environment that ClaimsPro allowed to exist due to Lalwani’s supervisor’s comments and negative actions based on Lawani’s colour, race, etc., Lalwani was also later terminated.

The tribunal found Lalwani suffered discrimination based on protected grounds, which created a poisoned work environment for him. However, the tribunal did not find that his employment termination was tied to a protected ground.

The bottom line is this: poisoned work environments should not be tolerated, but there are no easy solutions to solving the problem.