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When is incompetence cause for dismissal?

If establishing just cause for dismissal is considered to be a difficult task, then doing so on the basis of incompetence might be seen as almost impossible. It is certainly among the toughest of grounds to establish, particularly since it does not involve “misconduct.”

That said, the classic definition of just cause for dismissal explicitly recognizes incompetence and neglect of duty as appropriate reasons for dismissal:

If an employee has been guilty of serious misconduct, habitual neglect of duty, incompetence or conduct incompatible with his duties, or prejudicial to the employer’s business, or if he has been guilty of wilful disobedience to the employer’s orders in a matter of substance, the law recognizes the employer’s right to summarily dismiss the delinquent employee. (U.S.W.A. vs. Port Arthur Shipbuilding Co.)

Our courts have confirmed that by entering into an employment relationship, employees implicitly warrant that they are reasonably competent to perform the duties of the job that they have signed on for. By extension, being incapable of performing their duties would constitute a breach of contract, or, in the context of this discussion, just cause for dismissal.

Man shrugging

Image: David Castillo Dominici /

There is a heavy onus on employers who rely on incompetence to justify dismissal. One critical mistake that I see over and over again is the failure to have managers complete performance reviews honestly. I often receive calls from clients seeking to dismiss an employee that “has been a disaster since day one.” However, when I look at the performance reviews, they inevitably indicate that he is “meeting expectations” or performing adequately. Faced with years of average reviews and a history or routine pay increases, employers will have a hard time showing that the employee’s performance was so poor it can justify summary dismissal.

Where the employer alleges just cause based on incompetence, the employee’s quality of performance must demonstrably fall below the average level for the firm or business. Furthermore, in cases involving dismissal for incompetence or performance issues, the courts have held that the following corrective measures must normally be taken prior to invoking dismissal:

  • The employer has clearly made known to the employee the requisite standards of job performance
  • The employer has clearly warned the employee at the time exactly how she or he has failed to meet the requisite standard
  • The warning has clearly and unambiguously indicated that the employee’s job is in jeopardy
  • The employee has been clearly informed of what is required to constitute satisfactory performance and has been given a reasonable opportunity to improve pursuant to specified deadlines

As part of the obligation of providing a reasonable opportunity to improve, many courts have held that the employer must provide coaching, training or other assistance. The employer cannot simply tell the employee to “shape up within X months,” and then sit back and watch the employee fail. Reasonable assistance will usually be required.

Obviously, dismissing an employee due to performance issues is different than doing so for misconduct. Employers should approach such situations cautiously and ensure that they can establish a legitimate basis and that they have treated the employee fairly. Where they can, “just cause is not a lost cause.”

Stuart Rudner
Miller Thomson LLP

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Rudner Law, Employment / HR Law & Mediation

Employment Lawyers and Mediators at Rudner Law
Rudner Law is a firm specializing in Canadian Employment Law. They provide clients with strategic advice regarding all aspects of the employment relationship, negotiate and advocate on their behalf and represent them before courts, mediators and tribunals. Blog posts are written by Stuart Rudner, the principal and founder of Rudner Law, Brittany Taylor, a Senior Associate at Rudner Law, Nadia Zaman, an Associate at Rudner Law and Anique Dublin, a Law Clerk at Rudner Law. Read more
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3 thoughts on “When is incompetence cause for dismissal?
  • Thanks, and good luck! Let me know if I can be of assistance.

  • Chuck says:

    Thank you for the read, Mr. Rudner. As well as the comment added below, Ms. Anderson.

    I’m currently undergoing a human rights complaint in regards to wrongful termination based on discrimination based on my physical appearance. There are several factors which I’m researching on in regards to my complaint, one in which was the lack of reprimand given to me, as well as lack of proof of an incompetence to fulfill the required duties of that specific job.

    This has definitely come in to excellent use (along with other Lawyer blogs) and I thought I’d take a minute to give thanks. So thank you.

  • Cameila Anderson says:

    I am an HD Director. Since coming here we have had a dismissal. I have a legal background so I have a lot of understanding of employment law. The employee had been employed one year and our CAO thought we had cause for substantial absences from work. There was no progressive reprimand policy until I got here. My recommendation to pay her severance in lieu of notice. It was generous and not withstanding a lawyer was retained. Ultimately, the severance offer was accepted. Everything I have learned and seen is that to make grounds for a dismissal especially for incompentence you need to have performance evaluations which point out weaknesses, and you should have a progressive reprimands which have been thoroughly documented in detail.