Over close to 9 weeks of social-distancing, my 2-years old daughter and I have watched Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (at her request, I promise) at least 167 times (and often before the sun rises). As we both became word-perfect, I realized this movie, in addition to great animation, holds some important lessons for Ontario employers and employees.
Sleeping Beauty: a recap
For those not familiar with Sleeping Beauty, a quick recap: upset to not be invited to a party celebrating the birth of Princess Aurora, Maleficent curses the baby princess to die on her 16th birthday. Thanks to some quick work from Aurora’s guardian fairies, however, the curse is downgraded to a deep sleep which may be broken by true love’s kiss.
The fairies then hide Aurora in a forest. Maleficent’s henchmen spend 16 years unsuccessfully searching for her. As Aurora’s 16th birthday approaches, Maleficent meets with her henchmen to see whether they have found the princess and is shocked to learn they have spent 16 years searching for a baby. Maleficent is irritated and lashes out, shouting and electrocuting her goons, before tasking her trusty raven to get the job done (which it quickly does).
Lessons for Ontario workplaces
Maleficent’s (mis)management highlights a number of issues from which Ontario employers and employees can learn:
- Set clear expectations for employees in writing
In order to ensure your staff understand and perform their job duties as required (whether locating a princess or otherwise), be sure to provide clear instruction in writing. This may take the form of a job description at the time of hire (or when an employee changes positions) or an email addressing a specific requirement to be met. By setting clear expectations in writing, employers can limit the possibility of ambiguity or confusion and create accountability.
- Have regular check-ins with staff
Follow-up with your employees on a regular basis. Unlike Maleficent, avoid setting a task and then following up years later. Regular check-ins, such as weekly meetings, allow management to ensure that projects are progressing as needed, deadlines are being met, and clients are receiving services/products in a timely manner.
- Performance manage employees
If it appears that employees are missing the mark, work with them to improve their performance. Do not resort (as Maleficent did) to electrocution and banishment. Consider instead assigning an experienced employee to provide guidance and/or mentorship, or put in place a more formal performance improvement plan (PIP). A PIP can be a useful tool when properly implemented. It may, when combined with regular constructive feedback, provide struggling employees with an opportunity to fix deficiencies in their performance, in turn improving their confidence and strengthening your team. It must be remembered, however, that a PIP is not a disciplinary tool, and should not be approached as such.
- Workplace harassment & violence
Maleficent’s readiness to publicly chastise and ridicule her team is a textbook example of harassing behaviour (a course of vexatious comment and conduct). Allowing harassment to become a feature of your workplace can trigger a host of problems. In addition to poisoning the work environment (which may result in the loss of valued staff or irreparably damage team morale), it may cause PR problems and lead to unanticipated expenses.
Employers should look to lead from the front – hiring strong management to set a positive corporate culture, encouraging staff to report any concerns they may have, and taking prompt action (investigating and disciplining where necessary) to address allegations of workplace harassment and/or violence.
- Ending the employment relationship
Maleficent’s goons were long-service employees (having been on the hunt for Aurora for 16 years). While their inability to locate Aurora may have been incompetent, given Maleficent’s lack of oversight and arguable acquiescence to their flawed efforts (through prolonged inaction), it is unlikely Maleficent would be able to establish cause for dismissal. As such, she would need to provide reasonable notice of dismissal, or pay in lieu thereof (assuming the henchmen do not have written employment agreements prescribing their entitlements in the event of a without cause dismissal from employment).
In order to limit potential liability when dismissing an employee, employers should look to institute written employment agreements that set out an employee’s entitlements in the event of a termination. This language must be carefully drafted to ensure compliance with Ontario law. The effort, however, is worthwhile. It can help avoid potential liability, provide certainty and allow for better business and financial planning.
If you are an Ontario employer or employee dealing with workplace issues, and are in need of guidance or advice, please contact us directly to discuss.