Can an employer terminate the employment of an employee on probation without cause? That was the fundamental question that the Ontario Divisional Court had to answer in the case of Barton v. Bowerman, unreported, Divisional Court File No. 16-DC-2178 (Ottawa.)
In an earlier post, An employer can only dismiss a probationary employee for just cause” – Why that statement may have been correct, but it doesn’t mean what you think, I wrote about what it means to be on probation and the statement in the case of Mison v. Bank of Nova Scotia, 1994 CanLII 7383 (ON SC) that, “… an employer can only dismiss a probationary employee for just cause.”
In that earlier post, I wrote the following with respect to the termination of a probationary employee:
First, it is clear, settled law that a provincially regulated employer requires neither just cause nor even reason to terminate the employment of an employee who is not on probation. Meaning that those employees who either (a) are not placed on probation, see my next point below, or (b) ‘survive’ the probationary period, most certainly can be terminated without cause or reason.
Second, the placement of an employee on probation is wholly at the discretion of the employer; there is no automatic probationary period.
Third, the act of placing an employee “on probation” cannot possibly elevate the employee’s rights; that would be antithetical to the point.
So if all of those points are legally correct, and I would submit that they are, then why is an employer required to demonstrate just cause to terminate the employment of a probationary employee at all? Sure, it’s a modified test under Mison, but still, what is the legal basis for requiring an employer to show fairness to employee to whom it has arguably provided more notice of an intention to ‘fire at will’ than one to whom it has not? It simply makes no sense to me.
I then asked for comments on the issue of probation, and Professor David Doorey of Osgoode Hall Law School wrote the following:
I'd argue that a probationary clause does not oust the right of employer to terminate with notice, without alleging that termination is for cause. But once employer asserts termination is due to unfitness or failure to meet performance standards, a probationary clause allows court to assess the employer's decision on a low threshold standard of review (did employer fairly evaluate, give employee a reasonable chance, not act in bad faith, etc). The probationary clause introduces a lower standard of cause for employers who want to avoid notice and rely on summary dismissal. Having said that, if a probationary employee is terminated while a probationary clause is still in effect, a court may presume that the termination was due to performance or unfitness and consider the employer's decision in any event. Since notice period for a probationary employee would always be very short, at least if the contract requires only ESA minimum notice, I've never understand the value to an employer of including a probationary clause. If the probationary period is less than 3 months, no notice is required under ESA, if 3-12 months, it is one week's notice. Why not just give the notice and be done with it?
What Professor Doorey did not know at the time was that his position was exactly what I intended to argue before the Divisional Court and on November 30, 2016, I did make exactly that argument.
So are we right?