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Think Twice Before Complaining About Your Boss

It’s the last resort for the frustrated employee who is fed up with his boss, the final step before walking out the door and finding a job elsewhere. It’s the complaint letter, directed to higher authorities within the organization laying out a range of grievances about a manager and it’s not without risk.
Ignoring the (substantial) political risk inherent in opening up about your manager’s many and varied shortcomings, there is a legal risk as well. As a result, employees should think twice (or, perhaps, thrice) before firing off such a missive.
It seems these letters generally contain three categories of complaints: my boss treats staff poorly, she doesn’t know what she is doing, and he makes it impossible for me to do my job. These are, to be sure, serious allegations and the author of the letter should be expecting an unreceptive audience.
The B.C. Supreme Court recently addressed the case of Marianne Van Der Meij, who penned a letter of complaint about her boss. Van Der Meij was a coordinator of the settlement department at the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society. 
She was responsible for supervising and evaluating the work of four staff, preparing funding proposals, attending conferences, organizing workshops, and handling a client caseload. According to the Court’s description, I think it would be fair to call the Society’s operation a stressful work environment. Typical of such organizations, it appears there was an overload of work and a shortfall of funding.
Ms. Van Der Meij had an issue regarding the performance and conduct of one of her staff, and that led her to have a confrontation with her own boss, the Society’s Executive Director. Until this event, her relationship with the Executive Director had, by all accounts, been respectful. The Executive Director considered Van Der Meij to be effective at her job and he had never had a reason to impose discipline.
As a result of the confrontation, however, Van Der Meij delivered a letter to the Society’s Board of Directors. Among other things, the letter stated “I feel that I have been compromised in every regard and cannot function in the current climate.”
She went on to say, “My workload is far beyond anything anyone can handle, my position as coordinator has been compromised by Carlos’ unilateral actions that he has kept secret from me, I can no longer take responsibility for the work of others in the programme since my hands have been tied in dealing with it, Carlos has become irate with me, his stated intention to violate a client’s right to confidentiality, this in turn compromising the confidence I had built with the client, and moreover he has shown a cold and uncaring disregard for my health.”
The Society took the position that, by sending this letter to its Board of Directors, Van Der Meij had either resigned or had provided sufficient just cause grounds for summary dismissal. 
The Court began by accepting, as a general proposition, that an employee is entitled to criticize her superiors without fear of immediate dismissal. In some circumstances, however, criticism can undermine the employment relationship and render it impossible for the employee and his manager to continue working together.
The manner in which the employee voices her criticism of the manager is also relevant. If the criticism is disrespectful in tone or language or is otherwise irreconcilable with continued employment then the act of complaining may give rise to cause for immediate dismissal. 
The Court felt so strongly about this aspect that it emphasized just cause for immediate dismissal may exist regardless of whether the complaints are justified. That premise is a little difficult to accept but it is perhaps an indicator of how seriously the Court views intemperate outbursts.
The Court concluded that the language and tone of Van Der Meij’s complains were disrespectful, pejorative, and unnecessarily inflammatory. She described her manager as acting, or taking no action, out of fear or weakness. She allowed her emotions to creep into the language used, she was unreservedly critical of the Executive Director’s handling of workplace issues, and she pointed to serious flaws in his character and ability to manage.
Van Der Meij’s letter to the Society’s board of directors was found to be inaccurate, exaggerated, disrespectful, and inflammatory in tone and language. It was sent to the Society’s board of directors without giving the Executive Director an opportunity to deal with the problems it addressed. Both the content of the letter and the manner in which Van Der Meij brought her complaints to the attention of the board constituted a fundamental breach of the trust relationship between her and the Executive Director.
These actions effectively ended the employment relationship because the Executive Director could no longer work with someone who had no respect for his management abilities, his character, and his ethical standards. As a result, the Court found that just cause for summary dismissal existed.
Ms. Van Der Meij found out, the hard way, that going over the head of one’s boss can be a perilous strategy. Her case serves as a good example of why a person in her position might be better served by looking, quietly, for other employment.

Robert Smithson is a partner at Pushor Mitchell LLP in Kelowna practicing exclusively in the area of labour and employment law. For more information about his practice, log on to