Every week, I start my employment-law radio show on Newstalk 1010 with a tip of the week. This week’s was “Keep your Promises.” It had come to mind when listening to a speech by the U.S. president on my way to the cottage; he was delineating his accomplishments over his relatively short tenure. These were:
— The lowest black and Hispanic unemployment rate in history;
— The lowest unemployment rate for women in 21 years, at 3.6 per cent;
— 3.4 million new jobs;
— Illegal immigration at a 70-year low;
— Approval of the Keystone pipeline;
— Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement;
— More new judges appointed and regulations repealed than by any predecessor at the same point in office;
— US$760 billion spent revamping the military;
— Exiting the Iran nuclear deal;
— Moving the U.S. Israel embassy to Jerusalem;
— Renegotiating all trade deals with a focus on protecting American jobs.
Many readers will disagree with many of these initiatives. Almost all will take issue with at least one of them.
But one thing that no one can say is that he did not do precisely what he said he would do — and in record time.
What does any of this have to do with employment law?
Canadians are accustomed to our politicians abandoning their promises at the whiff of the first headwind. Indeed, we expect most politicians’ promises were never seriously intended.
Unfortunately, many Canadian employees have the same view of their employers. They read mission statements drafted by some organization development specialist or HR manager, which are not only quickly forgotten but never seriously contemplated by senior leadership in the first place.
But mission statements and indeed, all company policies, are legal contracts. If they are breached, employees have recourse. Constructive dismissal cases are often founded on employers’ broken promises. Constructive dismissal requires employees to resign and sue. But it doesn’t have to go that far. For example, if an employee is unequivocally promised a raise and that promise is breached, the employee can sue for the amount of the raise without resigning.
If an employee is experiencing debilitating stress and the employer promises action to alleviate it, which it does not take, the employee will have a claim for constructive dismissal or even negligence.
This is apart from the reality that keeping one’s commitments is one of the most profound aspects of leadership. Failing to keep your commitments will leave employees disillusioned and open to offers from other organizations.
Promises are a two-way street. If an employee fails to meet their commitments, it can be cause for their discharge to a greater extent than if they had never been made. Employees who receive warnings are generally better off when they promise to improve and work on the areas in question. However, if that promise proves illusory, their plight will be worse legally than if they had never made the commitment at all.
So, under-promise and over-deliver is a great motto for life and leadership. The converse can get you sued or fired.