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Navigating Workplace Power Dynamics: Cautionary Insights for Employers

In recent news, NHL coach Mike Babcock’s actions have sparked discussions about the delicate balance of power within workplaces. While Babcock may have believed he was fostering camaraderie with his players, experts argue that he may have unintentionally crossed ethical boundaries.

Upon joining the Columbus Blue Jackets, Babcock faced scrutiny for allegedly requesting that players share family photos from their phones, raising concerns about privacy and the misuse of his authority as head coach.

Experts emphasize the significance of recognizing the influence of positional power in such scenarios. Muneeza Sheikh, an employment lawyer at Levitt Sheikh LLP, explains that employees often feel compelled to comply with requests from superiors, even if they find them uncomfortable due to concerns about job security or workplace treatment.

Ex-NHL player Paul Bissonnette revealed on the “Spittin’ Chiclets” podcast that he was informed by an anonymous player that Babcock had asked team members to share personal photos, which he would then display on a television. In response to these allegations, the NHL Players’ Association dispatched its executive directors to investigate the matter.

Sheikh clarifies that it is not inherently wrong for an employer to express interest in employees’ personal lives, such as family photos. However, she underscores that positional power significantly influences workplace conversations, whether they are personal or professional.

According to Michael Walter of Walter Law Group, even when employers have good intentions of fostering a positive work environment, they must exercise caution when delving into personal matters. He highlights the importance of context and the potential for employers to inadvertently make their subordinates uncomfortable.

Walter emphasizes that there exists a delicate balance in the interactions between managers and employees. Employers must be mindful not to inquire too deeply into personal lives or relationships. Employees should not feel pressured to share personal information that they are uncomfortable disclosing.

Regarding employees’ devices, Sheikh notes that employers have a right to monitor devices used for both personal and professional purposes. However, she distinguishes between device monitoring and the invasion of personal photos. Privacy rights in Canada are not as extensive as commonly believed.

Stuart Rudner of Rudner Law observes that there is no current legislation preventing employers from making similar requests for personal photos or phone access. He acknowledges that employees may feel compelled to comply due to fear of job loss.

Rudner emphasizes the importance of simplicity in employers’ day-to-day interactions with employees. He advises against asking specific questions that could disclose sensitive information related to age, family status, religion, disability, or sexual orientation, as this could trigger human rights concerns.

Remote work has also introduced new dynamics to professional interactions. With virtual meetings, individuals may inadvertently reveal aspects of their personal lives, such as pets or family members in the background. However, Rudner emphasizes that discrimination based on protected characteristics remains unacceptable, even in remote work environments.

In conclusion, the evolving workplace landscape requires employers to navigate power dynamics with care and sensitivity, respecting employees’ boundaries while fostering a positive work environment. Balancing curiosity with respect for privacy is essential in creating a harmonious workplace.

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