“Can my employer force me to [do something]?” This is a question we often received when we were a law firm.
The answer is no.
Canada is a free country. No employer can force you to do anything.
An employer cannot force you to get vaccinated, wear a mask, not wear a mask, come back to the office, come into the office when you are sick, or, as more common examples from before covid times, force you to:
- Work overtime
- Take vacation
- Post on social media
- Change roles
- Sign a document
- Work a statutory holiday
- Come in early unpaid or not
- Or literally anything else
There is nothing an employer can do to force you to positively do something in Canada.
However, there are things an employer can lawfully do to you if you refuse to do something.
You Can Be Fired
Generally, your employer can discipline or even fire you for any reason or for no reason at all, including for refusing to follow a command.
Thus, as harsh as it sounds, your employment can be terminated if you are asked to, for example, work overtime or on a holiday or post some cringy corporate thing to your LinkedIn, and you refuse.
In this sense, while your employer cannot “force” you to do something, they can “force” your response if you want to keep your job.
Put it another way: If I was asked to take a demotion or lose my job, I was basically forced to take the demotion. I want to keep my income.
Thus, I totally understand why people asked me if their employer could “force” them to do something, and I sympathize with them.
Having said that, there are some things your employer cannot threaten to discipline or fire you about if you refuse. There are many examples of this.
For one, generally, your employer cannot threaten to fire you if you refuse to work on your lunch break. Under Ontario’s Employment Standards Act, all employees are entitled to a break after a certain number of hours, and, short of exceptional circumstances, if an employer fired someone for taking a break when it was due, Ontario’s Ministry of Labour could “force” their employer to rehire them or pay them a severance.
Indeed, the Employment Standards Act has many such protections, including circumstances covering sick days, maximum hours and vacation, among others.
Back in covid times, employers could technically fire you for refusing vaccination, refusing wearing a mask or refusing working from home without fear of having to rehire you or even pay you a severance. Still, this wasn’t your employer exactly “forcing” you to do anything like get the shot because you could always say no, but you would lose your livelihood if you did (despite the negative health effects of job loss, but I digress).
This is all to say that no employer in Canada can force you to do anything, but they can dangle your job like a carrot if you refuse to do what they are “forcing” you to do in most cases.
If you think you have been forced to do something that your employer ought not to have done legally, call your provincial Ministry of Labour or a lawyer (if you are higher income) and see if what your employer is doing is legal or not.
In conclusion, in response to being asked to do something you don’t want to do: Either do the thing or accept that you could be disciplined. If you believe you should not be disciplined for refusing to do that thing, your gut might be right, so call the Ministry of Labour or a lawyer. You could get rehired or, more commonly, severance (i.e. constructive dismissal, which would be the case had I been ask to take a demotion, like the example above).
A Bit of Advice
Often if you are asked to do something at work you don’t want to do and feel forced to do, it means you might have a bad employer. You should refuse, knowing that you are essentially quitting, with, perhaps, the possibility of severance down the road (claiming constructive dismissal and being awarded severance for it takes time, keep in mind). The result, no matter what, will be that you go and find a better employer.
Suppose you can’t “quit” in response to being forced to do something at work because you need the money. In that case, I do sympathize with you, and I would suggest that you should immediately begin your job search while you continue to put up with your current employer.
Jeff is a lawyer in Toronto who works for a technology startup. Jeff is a frequent lecturer on employment law and is the author of an employment law textbook and various trade journal articles. Jeff is interested in Canadian business, technology and law, and this blog is his platform to share his views and tips in those areas.