When employees are dismissed with cause or without just cause, they are obligated to make a reasonable effort to find comparable new employment within the period of reasonable notice. This obligation is referred to as their “Duty to Mitigate”. In other words, employees have an obligation to do what they can to limit the damage they may have suffered from their termination. They cannot sit back and do nothing to find another job throughout the notice period and just charge that to their former employer.
In this article, we will review what employees and employers need to know about the duty to mitigate, including factors to consider and how courts decide on whether or not it is met.
What is the Duty to Mitigate?
The duty to mitigate is engaged within a reasonable period of time after an employee is terminated. Employers may argue in court that damages are not owed because the employee could have been re-employed if they tried harder to find a comparable job. In these cases the courts make thorough assessments of effort and consider a broad range of factors, circumstances and evidence. Awards will be significantly reduced if the courts find that efforts are found to be insufficient or if the employee unreasonably refused alternate comparable employment.
Employees are expected to take steps that any reasonable person in a similar situation would take to find comparable employment and to accept that employment if it becomes available. Of note, though, a dismissed employee is not expected to accept employment that isn’t comparable to their former position. For example, a senior executive at one company wouldn’t be expected to take on an entry-level or mid-management position elsewhere just for the sake of being employed.
What does comparable employment mean?
The Ontario Court of Appeal has emphasized that “comparable employment” does not mean “any employment”. In order to be “comparable”, offers of employment must be comprehensive of the status, hours, and remuneration of the employee’s employment with his/her former employer.
How to Mitigate?
There are different ways that employees can mitigate their damages from a wrongful or constructive dismissal. An employee can accept:
- Re-employment with the same employer
- Employment in a non-comparable job position, or
- Employment in a comparable job position
Re-employment with the same employer
In some cases, an employer may dismiss an employee from their job, but offer a different position within the company or the same position but at a reduced pay rate or reduced level of responsibility.
Several judges have concluded that an employee can refuse an offer of alternative employment with the same employer where the work environment the employee would be returning to is hostile or would cause loss of dignity or embarrassment. Courts look at the entire context including the employee’s relationships with individuals at the former workplace, salary, and similar work conditions and responsibilities.
Lets look at three legal cases that cover different decision outcomes.
Dussault v Imperial Oil Limited
The Ontario Court of Appeal found that two employees who refused offers of employment from the purchaser of their employer did not fail to mitigate their damages since the employment that was offered was not “comparable.” In the case, the plaintiffs received less favourable offers of employment — offers where their salaries would be reduced after a period of 18 months and their prior service with Imperial would not be recognised. As a result, they both rejected the offers and brought a wrongful dismissal action against Imperial.
The case went before the Court of Appeal during which time Imperial Oil argued that the motion judge erred in failing to find that the employees had not mitigated their damages by accepting comparable employment with Mac’s (who had purchased the previous employer). The Court rejected that argument and agreed with the decision of the motion judge that the employment offered by Mac’s was not comparable and that it would have resulted in an immediate, substantial decrease in the plaintiffs’ benefits, as well as a material drop in their base salaries. As well, the Court found there was no reason to depart from the well-established principle that “comparable employment” does not mean “any employment,” and requires an offer with comparable status, hours, and pay.
Benjamin v. Cascades Canada ULC
In this case, an employee chose to retrain instead of accepting a comparable employment offer and the Court fund that the duty to mitigate was not met. The Judge wrote: “retraining on its own is not evidence of a failure to reasonably mitigate damages; rather, if an employer can establish that comparable work is available and the employee made a choice to retrain and not to seek comparable employment, retraining would not constitute reasonable mitigation.”
This case indicates that retraining can be considered reasonable mitigation in certain cases but employers will not be required to fund retraining through the payment of reasonable notice for employees that could have otherwise secured a similar position instead. Interestingly, participating in retraining as mitigation in cases where no comparable employment is available may be considered as “reasonable”.
Evans v. Teamsters Local Union No. 31
In the third case the employee rejected the comparable employment offer and the duty to mitigate was not met. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that an employee has to accept alternate jobs offered by the employer as part of the duty to mitigate only if a “reasonable person would accept that opportunity”. Where a reasonable person would not return to work for the same employer then there is no need to return to the company that fired you just because it is offering a comparable job.
Re-employment with a Non-Comparable Job
There is no obligation to mitigate by taking a job that is not comparable and/or not in line with what the employees training, education and experience has prepared him for. As an easy example, a former CEO does not have to take a job at McDonalds after termination.
Employment in a comparable job position
Upon finding a new comparable job, an employee’s entitlements to reasonable notice end.
- Employers can reduce their potential liability by offering support to departing employees. Such measures can include career counselling, outplacement services, reference letters and notifications of comparable positions with their businesses or elsewhere.
- Offering positive references and making efforts to end things on good terms with employees will also reduce employer’s liability by making it easier for the employees to find a new position.
- If the employee fails to take advantage of this assistance, the employer may be able to prove a failure to mitigate thus reducing company liability for wrongful dismissal damages.
- Employees should be aware that the onus is on them to make a reasonable efforts to seek comparable employment when dismissed.
- Always create and keep a detailed log sheet of all efforts to find a new job. Keep dates and times listed for when you updated your resume, updated your Linked In or other social media platforms, join Indeed or Monster, saved jobs to consider, worked on cover letters. Keep a list of jobs you applied for and whether or not you got interviews. The more detail and effort included in your job search logs the easier it will be to establish your attempts to mitigate.
Contact Justin W. Anisman
Justin W. Anisman is an Employment Lawyer at the Toronto law firm Brauti Thorning LLP. Justin advises both companies and individuals in all aspects of employment law including wrongful dismissal, human rights and discrimination.