Alberta woman awarded workers’ comp for psychological injury caused by employer’s email forwarding

An iPhone screen showing email notifications. Photo: Torsten Dettlaff/Pexels

An Alberta woman has been awarded workers’ compensation benefits for psychological injury after her employer forwarded her email to a colleague without her knowledge.

The 70-year-old woman was the manager of her employer’s crisis management department. (The employer was not named in the ruling.) She had been with this employer since 2008.

She said that, starting in August 2019, she was subjected to a campaign of bullying, harassment and discrimination at the hands of a newly appointed director.

In September 2019, she noted concerning actions by the new director and a peer which included re-directing her emails without her knowledge and allegations of poor performance and an inability to “self-regulate her behavior.”

The new director suddenly left for a three-month period, and the worker’s anxiety eased. When the director returned in January 2020, a targeted campaign against her began — running until April 2020 when she was directed to take a forced vacation.

The culminating event

On April 8, 2020, the director called her to go over performance concerns and told her she was immediately suspended and was required to take a mandatory leave using her vacation time.

There was no previous notice that there were problems to the degree suggested by the director.

On April 13, 2020, the director sent an email to HR stating that she had IT forward the worker’s emails to a co-worker as of April 9. The director asked HR for advice as to whether or not this action was “ok to do.”

HR replied that, typically, the employee would be asked — or IT could do it for them — to turn on their out of office message with instructions on who to contact in their absence.

“You’re right that the email is company property and employees can’t expect it to be private. However, I can see that forwarding it without (the worker’s) knowledge in advance that it would happen will be concerning to her,” it said.

“I suppose if you have a team norm set already with this happening multiple times in the past then perhaps it should be expected. There’s nothing illegal or anything about forwarding the email of course, but in general as a courtesy I would recommend either advise that it will happen (in advance if possible) or else go to OOTO message route. I don’t think there is a point to changing it now that this has been enacted already, but perhaps when you want to discuss these items with [the worker] you can let her know as is standard practice in your team are the steps you’ve taken, and a number of things arose that you want to discuss with her, etc.”

The panel took HR’s email to mean that it is “out of normal practice to have a worker’s emails rerouted to another person, especially without the worker’s knowledge, and the usual practice was to use out-of-office messaging.”

Letter from director

On April 27, 2020, the director wrote a letter to the worker that read in part:

“During your vacation these past two weeks I felt it necessary to ensure that incoming emails would be directed to myself to handle and ensure there were no gaps in coverage for our customers.”

“Receiving these incoming emails during your vacation has brought to light even further examples of the issues that need to be addressed; these issues fall within the list of concerns below.  I also did not receive a high volume of requests for customer consultations during your vacation through your email, which would n indicative of the volume of work coming in.”

The Appeals Commission for Alberta Workers’ Compensation said that letter confirmed the worker did not know her emails were being rerouted and reviewed.

It ruled that to be “clear and confirmable harassing behaviour” at the workplace in the form of a violation of her privacy. ‘

“While we recognize that the employer may own their worker’s emails, the advice of HR representative confirmed that the usual practice was to utilize out-of-office messaging informing the sender that the worker was out of the office and who to contact in her absence,” it said. “We find this usual practice to be within the intent of Policy regarding email management from a reasonable person’s perspective.”

It also noted the woman had a confirmed DSM-5 diagnosis. A May 5, 2020, medical certificate of disability completed by her family doctor provided a diagnosis of “acute reaction to stress.”

It ruled the woman had an acceptable claim for traumatic onset psychological injury, reversing a Feb. 24, 2022, ruling of the Dispute Resolution and Decision Review Body.

For more information, see Decision No.: 2023-0095, 2023 CanLII 23725 (AB WCAC).