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I am trying to navigate a really nasty scenario with my current employer, and am hoping there is a professional tactic or approach that won't require consulting with a lawyer, as I'm pretty much broke right now.

I signed on about two years ago with a large company in Canada, and did a coop/internship with them about four years ago when I was finishing up my Bachelor's degree program. At the time when I did my coop with them, it seemed like a great company. However, the past two years as a regular employee have been brutal.

Apparently bonuses and raises have been cancelled for the past several years, and the CEO has sent out disparaging remarks and insults via e-mail to the company. About a year ago, a new policy was forcibly implemented that I believe amounts to constructive dismissal and/or a unilateral contract change.

Employees may not work or engage in business for a different company or entity – with or without compensation – unless Company XYZ's CEO has authorized an exception in writing.

...

John and I – and everyone else across the company – expect the best from each of you. And if your focus isn’t 100% on Company XYZ, you’re not helping. You may even be getting in the way of our success – especially if you divert your work-related developments or potential business opportunities elsewhere.

...

Company XYZ's position regarding any form of external employment or side-business (including self-employment) is that it is not permitted, whether or not a conflict of interest exists.

Every year, all employees must re-sign the "Business Standards and Principles" (BS&P) document, or face dismissal/firing. The document itself has things which are ethics-related and basically common sense for business, such as no insider trading, don't steal other peoples lunches, don't use office stationery and laptops for personal use, don't play video games while you're supposed to be working, don't be a bigot, etc. These policies seem reasonable.

However, last year, a few employees were caught working for a competitor, so a new massive change has been made to the BS&P, where employees are not allowed ANY side work or unpaid/volunteer work without the legal team's approval and the CEO's signature. The wording is very explicit: even volunteering to coach my little girl's soccer team is in breach of the new policy, and the policy allows the company to fire people on the spot without notice/severance pay if "caught". If we didn't sign the new BS&P, we would either be fired, possibly without severance, unless we agreed to allowing the company to have new powers and ways to fire us, without severance.

While this isn't a change to my formal employment contract, it does indeed equate to an "effective change" to it, since we are figuratively held at gunpoint to sign the new document every year. I do a bit of volunteer web site design for the local office of a political party, and also do some commercial web site design on the side to help pay the bills, as the salary with this employer isn't that great, but I jumped at the chance to work with them years ago since they had such a great reputation in my eyes.

This policy will force me to disclose my political affiliations to numerous people in my company. Is it my employer's right to know everything I do? Also, it seems to directly state that the company owns me 24/7, but I'm only paid for 40 hours per week, not the 168 hours in a standard week.

Are there any regulatory agencies or groups this can be reported to, in hopes that they can step in and improve the work environment for the company, or is this the kind of thing where I either quit or hire a lawyer to fight the company? I would think that by forcing us to re-sign or be fired would be a very cut-and-dry instance of abusive practices and policies by the employer.


Update #1

After reviewing the provided answers, I found out that there were some labor law offices only a 30 minute drive away, and have already booked a 2 hour consultation for $150, which is great for me. I'll be focusing more on the non-compete agreement's enforceability primarily, as the comments here have convinced me the employer is a lost cause as a viable place of employment. Thank you for the help!


Update #2

I had an initial consultation with a labor law specialist who noted that at least in my case, the non-compete is unenforceable, as I have a right to earn a wage and not be forced into unemployment for a year. As for the contract changes, I could likely get a fair bit of momentum if I went the class-action route, but the money the company pays out if it loses is more about punishing the employer than compensating the employees/victims.

My advised solution thus far is to find new work unless I plan to take legal action against my employer. I have neither the time nor the money for that, so I'm going to start using every spare moment when I'm off the clock to find new work. I wonder if I have to report this effort as "outside work" to my employer.


Update #3

I'm handing in my resignation letter at the end of July if I can. As luck would have it (seriously), a friend identified me pretty quickly as she also uses SO, joined my efforts, and we're both aiming to hand in our resignation by the end of July. There are plenty of other companies to work for in this neighbourhood, so it's time to burn up those sick days.


Update #4

It turns out a number of places are hiring in the area for junior techies, and I scored a couple interviews already. Thanks everyone for the support!


Update #5 - Final

I've found an employer in another country willing to take me on, so I'm in luck, since that'll take care of my non-compete concerns. I'll be starting in a few months, but the written offer is already in hand, so I can just use up my vacation days and get ready to start over. Thanks all!

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    Also probably useful - labour.gc.ca/eng/resources/ipg/033.shtml – David K May 15 '15 at 14:23
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    @VietnhiPhuvan The problem is that I signed a massive non-compete agreement with them that says "No apple, microsoft, nokia, ...., or any tech company we deem as a competitor". I'm kind of trapped in this job, unless I want to be unemployed in my industry for a year and live on welfare. It's a really crummy position to be in. – Roger May 15 '15 at 15:01
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    I'm really glad things are working out well for you, Roger - good luck on all your future endeavors! And thanks for all the updates! – BrianH May 28 '15 at 15:31
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    @Pepone I don't think it's standard to attempt to restrict volunteer work too. While I understand the "with or without compensation" bit (I do a bit of consulting for company AAA on the side for "free", and they hire my daughter/nephew/etc -- no paper trail of compensation but it's still outside work for a theoretical competitor)... but volunteering for a political organization or a kids' sports team is hardly a conflict of interest. Most companies encourage such community efforts. – Doktor J Mar 23 '17 at 14:40
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Legally there is a different in non-competition and non-solicitation (in Canada too). If all that is holding you from seeking and getting another job is a BS line of an employment contract that most courts have ruled difficult to enforce, impossible to enforce, or a violation of civil liberties - you probably need to get out of there as soon as possible and stop "but, but..."'ing yourself to death.

The same is true for talking with an employment lawyer. Many lawyers offer a free consultation, and if nothing else they will give you an estimate of cost of what it will take to do any research necessary to answer your questions about your contract properly. Take advantage of these services, even if you need to call around to a dozen lawyers to find one willing to talk with you. You should get a copy of the new contract, any present contract you have (especially that one about non-competition), and take that with you to a meeting.

This decision - to get a new job that could pay more, be better for your mental health, and your families financial health and security - is vastly too important to not prioritize enough to make it happen, even if you need to borrow the money if you can't get acceptable advice. If you already have to work side-jobs to make ends meat, you really need to solve this before it gets worse - and it almost certainly will keep getting worse.

The general legal fact in the US and Canada is that if a contract effectively says "you aren't allowed to work anywhere else for X amount of time", this constitutes a demand of unemployment and as you indicated will require you rely on welfare, unemployment, etc, and is generally ruled as unacceptable and not legally binding. It's mostly used as a threat now, and if you don't super anger someone (like being an executive and leaving for a direct competitor, throwing a big fit in front of the CEO and getting escorted out by security, cause a big public stink online, etc) it's relatively unlikely that anyone will really care.

If this really still worries you after talking with a legal professional, you have other options. This could be "temp" style work, or applying to work for any company that isn't a direct competitor (non-profit agency, IT firm, insurance company, whatever). If this new job works out, great - and if not you can then safely apply to jobs you care about after a year with the non-compete officially timed-out and you can move on to bigger and better things.

No matter what, you need to get real with the situation: according to your own story, things are getting worse and have been for a significant period of time. Major people are behaving unacceptably, you've been accepting substandard wages because a name sounded good, etc. You must stop figuring sunk costs into your decisions - the past has already happened, so let it go and set a new path forward that is better for you and your family. Life is too damned short to life under the thumb of tin-pot dictators, especially when you work in an industry with such incredibly large profits and high demand!

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While you might be able to negotiate the volunteer part (coaching little league), I don't think you are going to succeed in negotiating away the paid employment part. And it sounds like that is where your main objection lies. I'm required to get approval for any side jobs. They do a good job at keeping it confidential to only the department that needs to know (and my manager who has to approve it isn't a conflict of interest.)

My side jobs aren't things I worry about people finding out (writing a book, editing a book, etc). However, it is my place to tell people and not theirs. The company is good about honoring it.

You could ask about the discretion policy with this - to see who will actually know. But ultimately if you don't want people to know about your side job, you do have to leave.

As far as the volunteer part, how do they define volunteering. What's the difference between doing something nice and volunteering? I hope they are making this very clear.

  • @Roger Perhaps you should edit out the company name from your comment, like you did in your question. :) – Nix May 16 '15 at 17:20
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Every year, all employees must re-sign the "Business Standards and Principles" (BS&P) document, or face dismissal/firing.

In general, you should vet anything you are required to sign with a lawyer, so you understand the implications of what you're signing. It might be that you are actually allowed to coach your kid's team, but only a real lawyer can answer that. Also, remember that everything is open to negotiation and if you have to give up something, it is reasonable to expect something in return ("your job" isn't it -- you already have that).

For example, a former employer wanted me to sign a 'non-compete' agreement, meaning I couldn't hire on to a competitor, for 9 months. After checking with my lawyer to verify this was legit (it was), I countered with a non-compete of 3 months and 3 months of paid compensation to make up for my forced "sitting on the bench". They ended up dropping it entirely. If I recall correctly, I spent $250 for the lawyer to review the NC -- well worth the price.

Now, you say that you're in a bind. The best thing you can do is LEAVE. Make it your full-time job (or near-enough) to find a better job. If you stay and try to fight this thing, you will spend much money/time and get very little in return (and probably be put on the short-list for downsizing candidates). But don't take my word for it: ask a lawyer.

Remember this: if your job sucks, there is a better, more ideal job out there waiting for you to take it. All you have to do is make the effort.

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