Lessons from Lisa LaFlamme, echoes from Julie Payette, and the perils of a toxic workplace

Photo: HR Law Canada/Canva
By Lai-King Hum | Hum Law Firm

In recent years, we have seen various forms of toxic workplace allegations gain increasing attention as more individuals speak out about their experiences of harassment, discrimination, and abuse in the workplace.

Employees also feel more empowered to share their stories publicly in an increasingly digital and socially aware world.  Employers are at risk of significant operational missteps, which can create reputational damage or put their entire brand at risk, if toxic behaviour is not corrected.

The end results of a recent high-profile example played out late in December 2022.  News anchor Lisa LaFlamme had her award-winning career cut short in June 2022 in a way that caused shock waves within journalism circles but also in social media due to the manner in which she was fired.

After the abrupt firing by former CTV network VP Michael Melling, LaFlamme and her supporters, and many in the journalism community, alleged that sexism and ageism, endemic in media workplaces, played a role in her ousting.

There was an  immediate, intense and ongoing public outcry, and subsequent reputational damage to Bell Canada and CTV News network. As a result, Bell Media, a subsidiary of Bell that owns both Bell Canada and CTV News, commissioned an independent third-party workplace review “to address concerns raised regarding the working environment in the newsroom.” 

The review found that CTV’s workplace culture had fostered a lack of respect in the newsroom and a “fear of reprisal or inaction” when voicing concern. Overall, employees had “a desire to improve working conditions.” Public records of the review did not include any language about ageism or sexism. Melling, who had been on leave immediately since the workplace review was launched, was then permanently reassigned.

It is worth noting that Bell Media has conducted several workplace reviews in the past few years stemming from complaints of “bullying, racism, and sexism in the newsroom.” In each of those cases, the investigation was cloaked in secrecy and confusing to employees.

Many employees indicated they did not feel comfortable sharing details with investigators – both internal and external for fear of reprisal. In at least one instance, an independent arbitrator disagreed with the findings of the investigation and a complainant was awarded damages. In each case, a lack of change following the outcome of the investigation caused employees to lose confidence in the investigation process.

This case echoes another high-profile one that occurred a few years ago, albeit the person at the centre resigned. Julie Payette’s resignation as governor general was preceded by a media storm of controversy over allegations that she had created or allowed a toxic workplace.  An independent report, based on interviews of individuals in the workplace, detailed allegations of how Payette and her second-in-command, Assunta Di Lorenzo, presided over a toxic work environment.  

A week after receiving an early copy of this independent report, Payette resigned.  While the report did not make findings of fact (as the CTV workplace culture report did), the details were not only devastating for  Payette personally, but also damaging to the vice-regal position of the Governor Genera of Canada.

High stress, low productivity

Toxic workplaces can have a detrimental effect on employees’ mental and physical well-being, leading to elevated levels of stress, anxiety, and even depression. In addition to affecting employees’ health, toxic workplaces usually lead to a lack of productivity and a high turnover rate.

There are reports of Bell Media employees crying at work and being belittled and made to believe they are replaceable. Additionally, many workers are temporary contract workers who have no job security. In another recent case, Patricia Jaggernauth, a popular on-air personality, cited health issues that landed her in the hospital after she was overworked due to fear of her contract being terminated if she said no.

Increased legal risks: Be prepared for a costly lawsuit

In addition to the reputational or brand damage to employers, there is also increased legal and financial risk where they have allowed a toxic work environment to persist to the point where employees trigger the need for an investigation or initiate a law suit.

In one case, the Middlesex-London Health Unit spent about $135,000 from 2018-2021 investigating workplace harassment of an internal toxic work environment.

In 2021, the Calgary Board of Education was sued for $40 million in a class-action lawsuit for their negligence and failure to investigate and prevent historical sexual abuse by a teacher.

In 2018, a former law school dean sued Thunder Bay’s Lakehead University for a total of $2.67 million for “constructive dismissal and racial discrimination” that was allegedly caused by a toxic work environment. The case was later settled in 2020 for an undisclosed amount.

Reputational damage leads to lack of public trust

While LaFlamme’s case is a high-profile example of allegations of ageism and sexism, unfortunately these elements exist within many modern workplaces.

With employees more empowered to speak out and communities of public supporters, a toxic workplace puts an organization’s reputation and the public’s trust in them and their brand at risk.  Even if the allegations are later not substantiated, earning the public’s anger can cost larger organizations billions and lower revenues and profitability in the long-term.

Perception of a toxic workplace is just as detrimental

Sometimes, perception of toxic workplaces could have the same detrimental effects as actual toxic behaviour. For example, even if there is no ill intent, miscommunication, misunderstanding, or internal conflicts between departments can arise.

These situations may inadvertently create a working environment that negatively affects business operations. This could result in key personal resignations, project suspensions, expensive internal investigations, or even legal disputes, such as allegations of discrimination and constructive dismissal.

Employers need to proactively address toxic workplace behaviour

Employers are reminded that they have a legal obligation to address toxic workplace behaviour and resolve conflicts promptly and carefully. This includes establishing clear workplace policies and procedures for dealing with harassment and discrimination, providing regular training on these topics, fostering an environment of respect, open communication and inclusivity, and holding individuals accountable for their actions.

In addition, it is important for employees to feel they can speak out about their experiences, without the fear of reprisal. They should be encouraged to speak up, as this can prevent toxic or potentially toxic behaviour from going unnoticed and allow employers to resolve it before it becomes a bigger problem.

Laflamme’s situation at CTV News serves as a reminder of the importance of preventing toxic workplaces. Employers should really be taking a proactive approach to create a healthy and safe working environment.  However, at the very least, employers need to promptly take appropriate action when a situation arises suggesting a potentially toxic workplace.

If you need guidance from an experienced employment lawyer, contact Hum Law today at (416)214-2329 or Complete our Free Assessment Form Here.


  • Lai-King Hum

    Founder of Hum Law, Lai-King Hum is known for expertise in all areas of workplace law. Her practice encompasses employment law, human rights, professional regulation, mediation and litigation. Lai opened her Toronto-based employment law and human rights firm in 2014, having established herself as a leading employment law practitioner at top-tier national firms in Ontario and Quebec.

About Lai-King Hum 0 Articles
Founder of Hum Law, Lai-King Hum is known for expertise in all areas of workplace law. Her practice encompasses employment law, human rights, professional regulation, mediation and litigation. Lai opened her Toronto-based employment law and human rights firm in 2014, having established herself as a leading employment law practitioner at top-tier national firms in Ontario and Quebec.