I’m stuck between fighting bosses. What can I do?

Special to The Globe and Mail, Published Sunday, Aug. 28, 2016


I am caught in the middle of a dogfight between two bosses. What should I do?


Eleanor James, Personal communications consultant, James Thinkstitute, Toronto

I was once in this very position. There were 35 employees in the company and two active partners. They had separate responsibilities and equal power and it worked well for a long time. But something happened and suddenly those two men became bears with thorns in their paws, fighting all over the building.

The good thing was that we all knew what we were doing so we just carried on, avoiding consultation with them unless it was absolutely necessary. One smart thing those men did was hire well, and we all had the freedom to make decisions. That kept things going for a long time but eventually the company was shut down.

That may not work in your situation so sit down with your bosses together if you can, or separately if you must. Either way you’ll need some spine. The language you use is very important. “There is friction between you and I’m really sorry to see it. I don’t mean to interfere with that, but I do want to let you know that I’m now having trouble doing my job effectively. There are conflicting instructions [give concrete examples] and I need some clarification. We can talk about it now or set up a meeting later if you like.” See what comes of that. If nothing, go to HR and spill the beans.


Natalie MacDonald, Partner, Rudner MacDonald LLP, Toronto

Have you ever watched two dogs pulling at a stick? One pulls one way, and the other pulls the opposite way. Neither wants to give in, and neither is prepared to let go. This happens in the workplace as well, and can leave you stuck in the middle. How can you win? The only way is to ensure that you are taken out of the equation – but this is easier said than done.

In this type of scenario you have the beginning of a poisoned workplace. The first thing you should do is to ensure that you address the situation with both bosses at the same time. Before sitting down with them, it is imperative that you have concrete examples of the behaviour, and so you should keep a journal of the times and behaviour that has occurred and put you in the middle. Voicing your concerns, and providing specific instances of when and how the actions have affected you, is imperative toward working to a solution.

If there is still no change, ensure that you bring those examples, and the fact that you have attempted to work out a solution with your bosses, to HR. After your meeting with HR, capture the essence of the meeting in an e-mail, which therefore documents exactly what you attempted to do to resolve the situation.

But if nothing changes, even after discussing the matter with HR, it may be time to seek legal advice from an employment lawyer – one who can protect your rights and entitlements at both ends of the stick.

Are managers entitled to overtime pay for on-call duties?



As a salaried municipal employee with a manager title, I had to participate in on-call coverage for emergency management. This required me to be at my workplace within one hour of notification, for the duration of my on-call period, day and night.

The on-call period was typically two out of every four weeks. During these periods, I was extremely restricted in my personal activities, including not being able to leave be out of town. I received no compensation for the time I was required to be on call. I understood that disciplinary action could follow for failure to consistently respond within expectations. In contrast, on-call technical staff were paid for on-call time, with the result that my staff routinely made more income than I did.

The on-call requirement was not in my job description nor in my employment contract.

Did Ontario labour law allow my past employer to schedule managers for on-call work without compensation?


George Cottrelle, Partner at Keel Cottrelle LLP, Toronto

We assume that, as a manager, you were not in a trade union. Your rights to overtime pay, if any, were governed by the Ontario Employment Standards Act, which sets out minimum statutory entitlements for employees, as well as any provisions in your employment contract. We also assume that technical staff were governed by a collective agreement, which contained provisions for on-call pay.

Both hourly and salaried employees are entitled to overtime pay (generally, after 44 hours a week) under the act, unless specifically exempt. Persons whose work is supervisory or managerial are specifically excluded from the act’s overtime provisions. Accordingly, as a manager, you were not entitled to overtime pay.

The act has specific provisions when on-call hours are deemed to be work. performed by an employee. On-call time where the employee is not performing work, but is required to remain at the place of employment, is deemed to be work performed. Where the employee is not at the place of employment, and is simply ready for a call to work, on-call time is not deemed to be work. performed for an employer.

In addition to the act, your employment contract and any policies or practices of your employer applicable to managers would also determine whether you were entitled to additional compensation. Your employer’s position was that on-call coverage was a requirement of your job, without compensation, and we assume there was no policy or practice to the contrary.

We note that on-call coverage was introduced after you began your employment, and as such, potentially constituted a unilateral change to a term of your employment contract. A unilateral change by an employer, without consideration, to a fundamental term of the employment relationship does not have to be accepted by an employee, and may constitute constructive dismissal.


Eleanor James, Communications consultant, James Thinkstitute, Toronto

Two weeks is a long time for such a short leash, especially without compensation. The Employment Standards Act is clear on what is paid work for managers in your situation. Some employers make fundamental contractual changes as a means of constructive dismissal, a way of bullying an employee to quit instead of letting them go. Is it possible that’s what was happening here?

The working relationship sounds poor, too, and what a waste it is when that happens. It’s not uncommon with the mix of unionized and non-unionized workers, and it requires great management to balance both sides. Unfortunately, that’s not always on hand. Often it’s better and easier when people just put their cards on the table rather than trying to weasel out a change and betting the employee won’t fight it.

Employers would benefit from taking into account the consequences of their actions on fairness, morale, lawsuits and the organization’s reputation. A little finesse goes a long way.

How can I talk to HR when the director is the owner’s wife?



I have a problem with the owner of the company I work for that should really be resolved by Human Resources. But how do you handle that situation when the director of HR is the owner’s wife?


Eleanor James, Communications consultant, the James Institute, Toronto

The conflict of interest in the company’s managerial structure has you between a rock and a hard place. You want to resolve the problem rather than take a more rash or destructive path, and that’s good. Do some homework and contact the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) for assistance, which will be directed by the specific nature and scope of the problem. They might also direct you to an independent HR professional who could be a third party.

When you have the information, arrange to meet with your HR director, which is the proper channel and a no-fault move for you. Prepare yourself well for the meeting; think carefully about what you want to say and how you’re going to say it, including the problem, how it’s affecting your work and any suggestions you have. Choose your words carefully, use non-accusatory language and take out any emotional tone. Write it down and rehearse it out loud, a few times. All this preparation will calm you and greatly reduce your chances of inflaming the issue. You never know, the HR director might see your point or even agree with you. If not, there are lots of resources available based on what you want to do.


Eileen Dooley, Vice-president, Gilker McRae, Calgary

Having a problem with any owner of a business presents limitations on what you can do. Having family members in key leadership roles poses additional issues.

Perhaps, even though the two work together, they may have a separation with respect to work. The director of Human Resources may very well be approachable in discussing difficult matters regardless of her relationship with the owner. Some companies even have non-retaliation policies, which are supposed to protect employees who bring up concerns with the company.

If the concern has to do with a matter where Human Resources would typically be brought into the fold, such as harassment, discrimination, or any violation of human rights or workplace law, it is the right thing to do to bring it to the attention of someone who can invoke change. You would naturally start internally, but you may also want to consider bringing these types of matters to the attention of your local employment standards office.

If neither of these two options is viable, you may want to ask yourself if it makes sense to move past the issue, or walk away entirely.