The Common Law Obligations of the Employer Under the Contract of Employment

AuthorGeoffrey England
The employer’s obligations to its employees derive from the express and
implied terms of the contract of employment.1 As we saw in Chapter 4,
which dealt with the common law obligations of the employee,2 express
contractual terms are generally of secondary importance in delineating
the employer’s duties. Because the parties ca nnot foresee at the date of
hiring all the contingencies that might occur over the course of their
future relationship, and therefore cannot bargain comprehensively and
precisely about them,3 the f‌ield is left in large measure to the standard-
ized i mplied term s. Typically, the express duties of the employer will
be found in its written and verbal offer and the employee’s written and
verbal acceptance of that offer; they w ill also be found in any ancillar y
documentation that the parties expressly agree will be incorporated
into the contract, personnel manuals, works rule books, benef‌it hand-
books, and ot her personnel memoranda among t hem. In contrast, in
some countries such as Britain, legislation requires the employer to
provide t he employee with a written statement describing a compre-
hensive range of contractual matters, including the legal identity of the
employer, job title, wages, vacation and holiday pay, sick pay, notice of
termination, length of vacations, p ension benef‌its, disciplinary rules
1 See generally on t his topic G. England, R. Wood, & I. Chri stie, Employment Law
in Canada, 4th e d., looseleaf (Markham, ON: Lex isNexis Canada, 20 05–) c. 10.
2 See Chapter 4.
3 See the illum inating analysi s by P.R. Milgrom & J. Robert s, Economics, Organ-
ization and Managem ent (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prent ice-Hall, 1992) at 329–30.
The Common Law Obligat ions of the Employer 85
and procedures, and dispute resolution m achinery.4 This information
must be given to the employee within thirteen weeks of the date of
hiring and must be updated regularly thereafter. As yet, no Canadian
jurisdiction has en acted equivalent legislation, although in 2006 the
Arthurs Report recommended that it be incorporated into the federal
Code.5 The report also suggested an innovative remedy for employer
violations of t he provision, na mely, that the employee’s recollection of
the term s of the contract shall b e presumed to be accurate unless t he
employer can prove otherwise.
The d isparity of barga ining power between many low- and mid-
skilled workers and their employer may be ref‌lected in express con-
tractual provisions that i mpose harsh termination ent itlements on the
employee or confer broad, unfettered di scretionary powers on the em-
ployer in key areas, such as changing job duties and granti ng or with-
holding bonuses or ot her perquisites. Most courts w ill interpret harsh
termination clauses contra proferentem t he i nterests of t he employer.6
Furthermore, several courts have held that clauses giving the employer
a broad di scretion to adversely affect t he employee’s interests are sub-
ject to an implied term requiring th at such discretion be exercised rea-
sonably and in good faith. For example, in one case where an express
term permitted the employer to unilaterally modify a sa lesperson’s ter-
ritory, it was held that the parties impliedly understood that any modi-
f‌ications would be for “good and valid” business reasons and would be
implemented “reasonably.7 However, the Alber ta cour ts h ave refus ed
to imply a residual proviso of reas onableness and fairne ss into express
discretionar y clause s th at perm it employers to terminate the employ-
4 Employment Protect ion (Consolidation) Act 1978 (U.K.), 1978, c. 44, ss. 1–11. There
is also a directive of the European Economic Community to similar effect: “An
Employer’s Obligation to In form Employees of the Conditions Applic able to the
Contract or Employme nt Relationship,” Directive 91/533/E.C.; O.J. No.L 288/32,
18/10/91. For a criticism of thi s directive, see J. Clark & M. Ha ll, “The Cinderella
Directive? Employee Rights to Information about Conditions Applicable to Their
Contract or Employme nt Relationship” (1992) 21 Indus. L.J. 106.
5 Canada, Com mission on the Review of Federa l Labour Standards, Fair ness at
Work: Federal Labour Standards for th e 21st Century, by H.W. Arthurs (Ottawa:
Commission on t he Review of Federal Labour St andards, 2006) at 80– 84 [Ar-
thurs Report].
6 See Chapter 4.
7 Snelling v. Tenneco Canada Inc. (1992), 40 C.C.E.L. 122 at 128 (B.C.S.C.). In a
similar ve in, see Truckers Garage Inc. v. Krell (1994), 3 C.C.E.L. (2d) 157 (Ont.
C.A.); Greenberg v. Meffert (1985), 18 D.L.R. (4th) 548 (Ont. C.A.); Cohnstaedt v.
University of Regina, [1989] 1 S.C.R. 1011 at 1019. All of these cases ar e author-
ity for the principle t hat the employer’s express di scretionary powers mu st, by
implication, be e xercised in good faith and f airly.

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