Quebec's Distinct Employment Culture

Thursday, November 1, 2007 - 01:00

Editor: Can you tell us about your practice?

Bonhomme: I am a partner with Heenan Blaikie in Montreal. We represent management for both labor and employment matters. I have a general labor and employment law practice, handling individual and group terminations, grievances on the interpretation of collective agreements, and discrimination complaints before the Human Rights Tribunal. I appear before the civil courts on matters relating to termination of employment or enforcement of restrictive covenants and advise employers on pension plans and benefits.

Editor: How does the employment environment in Quebec compare with the rest of Canada and the U.S.?

Bonhomme: We have various employment laws that make it more difficult for an employer to terminate an individual. These laws have no equivalent in other provinces. Quebec also has one of the highest percentages of unionization in North America - approximately 40% of public- and private-sector employees are unionized. That creates an environment where employees both know and exercise their rights. For employers located outside of Quebec, that creates a challenge as they face legislation - and an employment culture - that does not necessarily exist elsewhere in North America. I should also add that Quebec is predominantly French-speaking. Hence, employers may be legally compelled to provide a French work environment: write internal memos in French, provide French computer software, etc.

Editor: Given that Quebec is a civil law - not common law - jurisdiction, what are the key differences employers should be aware of?

Bonhomme: Most wrongful dismissal cases are heard by a specialized tribunal called the "Commission des relations du travail" (labor relations board) instead of the courts. Government-paid attorneys are provided to employees, who therefore have little incentive to settle unless their case is shaky or difficult to win. Employers must have a serious defence.

Quebec is one of only three jurisdictions in Canada - along with Nova Scotia and the Canada Labour Code (which applies Canada-wide to federally-regulated enterprises) - that permit an employee who has been wrongfully dismissed to seek reinstatement as a remedy. Under Quebec's regime, senior executives are excluded, but everyone else with at least two years of service is entitled to this recourse.

We also have a special regime relating to psychological harassment. On June 1, 2004, the provisions on psychological harassment in Quebec's Labour Standards Act came into force. Employers have an explicit obligation to maintain an environment free of any psychological harassment. That creates a burden on the employer to "micro-manage" employee relationships. Failure to maintain a harassment-free environment could lead to remedies such as the payment of "moral damages" or therapy sessions for the employee, and reinstatement. To our knowledge, this does not exist anywhere else in North America.

Editor: So does the Quebec employment climate favor employees?

Bonhomme: Because of the recourses and the legislation, yes. U.S. employers need to be aware of this and analyze the problem in a different way. There is always a solution. Just by being aware of the bias, you act differently. Sometimes it is a question of financing the solution to the problem or applying progressive discipline. For example, it is good to plan a contingency budget for collective terminations or harassment issues.

Editor: How common are class action employment claims in Quebec?

Bonhomme: Class actions in general have become more and more popular over the past 10 years, but not in employment law. Individual recourses claiming a better severance package or reinstatement are more efficient than a class action. Also, our courts have been prudent in their application of the Code of Civil Procedure 's provisions on class actions.

Editor: Any final words of advice for employers?

Bonhomme: To help employers understand our Quebec system, Heenan Blaikie has prepared two books: 14 Questions Frequently Asked in Qubec Labour & Employment Law and More Questions Frequently Asked in Qubec Labour & Employment Law (Cowansville, Quebec: ditions Yvon Blais/Carswell, 2002 and 2005). And we're about to release a third book in the series. Heenan Blaikie also authored Canadian Labour and Employment Law for the U.S. Practitioner (BNA Books, Second Edition - 2006) as a guide for clients doing business in the common law provinces.

Please email the interviewees at jgoodman@heenan.ca or rbonhomme@heenan.ca with questions about these interviews.