Can my employer make me sign their social justice manifesto?
March 3, 2017 12:02 PM   Subscribe

I work for a non-profit in Ontario. Someone thought it would be a good idea to have all the staff and volunteers sign a "Staff Values" statement.

It reads like a mission statement with some lefty boilerplate social justice ideas thrown in, but wants me to "agree to adhere" to them, some of which are too vague or ambitious for adherence to be possible, and almost none of which have anything to do with my actual duties.

I'm told that this is mandatory. Is this legal?
posted by Paddle to Sea to Law & Government (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
What are the consequences if you don't adhere to the policy?
posted by JoeZydeco at 12:13 PM on March 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

Do you have any sway? If so, I would gently push that any such statement should be developed by the group that by the very nature of such a "statement" it needs to be a community/group based initiative for it to mean anything and thus not be offensive to the ideals it espouses.
posted by stormygrey at 12:29 PM on March 3, 2017 [5 favorites]

As long as the statement doesn't run afoul of some sort of anti-discrimination law (i.e. forcing you to sign a statement saying that you will give up your religion or never hire someone of another race, etc.), I'm pretty sure your employer can require you to sign things like this. For example, when I worked for a public university in California, every single employee had to sign a pledge to the state of California that we would defend the state (!).

I'm a little unclear on whether you seriously object to some of the language in the statement, or just think it is sort of silly. With the dumb pledge I dealt with, overall I thought it was ridiculous, but it was clearly not a binding contract in the sense that they were then enrolling me in the California National Guard. It was just a stupid thing they made people sign with no other repercussions (other than that, if I didn't sign they would not pay me, full stop). In your case, is there anything in this pledge that you feel is going to commit you to doing things you feel are morally or legally wrong? If so, obviously you do need to decide to seriously fight it and/or change to a different company.

If not, I might sign it, move on, and forget it ever happened. But if you do want to fight it, I would say something along the lines of scaring off future volunteers/staff members. You could also work with leadership folks to make things more specific/actionable/inoffensive -- like "As a member of this organization, I pledge to speak respectfully to coworkers and clients" etc. But, either of these things is likely going to be a big time suck, and so factor in whether this is your thing you want to pick to invest all your workplace capital in.
posted by rainbowbrite at 12:43 PM on March 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

Shoot - I missed that you're in Canada, I am less certain of the legal aspect there, sorry!
posted by rainbowbrite at 12:46 PM on March 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm not sure if it's legal, but here's two relevant questions:
1)What are the consequences laid out if you don't sign?
2)If you do sign, what are the consequences put in place if you are found to not adhere?

If the answer to #1 is nothing, don't sign. If the answer to #2 is nothing, sign it. Who cares if you don't like what it says? if it's not enforceable, or they don't plan on enforcing it (i.e. they just want people to sign it so they can tell their customers that the company is "progressive" without putting in any effort), it's no skin off your teeth to put your name down.
posted by FirstMateKate at 12:58 PM on March 3, 2017 [6 favorites]

What I would do, is not say no, but not say yes either. If pushed to sign, I would tell them I have to give a copy to my lawyer for her advice and I will let them know of her advice and any changes. I think that would delay them. If a week or two later they pressed again, I would mutter something about my no good lawyer not getting back to me and delay another week or two. During this delay I would find out from a Canadian lawyer friend if you really need to sign this worthless document.

Also, what FIrstMateKate said.
posted by AugustWest at 1:05 PM on March 3, 2017 [4 favorites]

Is this legal?
I'd think this would have to be decided by a judge in court. Even a lawyer could only give advice (perhaps very good advice, perhaps based on clear precedent and clearly written laws).

I agree it might be more beneficial to say you want to improve/clarify the wording as a group -- both to make it something tenable and also to be consistent with the values it espouses.

As for consequences: the California thing mentioned above is here, and it says very clearly that they won't pay you until you sign it (it also contains consent to patent policy. I also had to swear that I intended to make CA my "permanent home". What a bunch of suckers: come and get me if you can UC!)

I know CA is not .ca, but just thought you might be interested to read what they can get away with there. It's also different because they make you sign it when you start, but you are already employed, and firing people tends to be slightly harder than not hiring them.

Anyway, if you want to pursue (threaten, investigate) real legal clarification or action, don't say anything to them, and immediately call a lawyer. Otherwise just sign and ignore is my advice. Telling them you don't want to sign or that you want to ask for legal advice will not do anything to help your standing with the folks who thought this was swell.
posted by SaltySalticid at 1:11 PM on March 3, 2017

Best answer: I don't know whether or not this is legal but I don't think this is the hilll you want to die on. Not to say you should sign the dumb thing. If I were you I would go to the least senior of whoever is circulating it and tell them that you are concerned about attaching your name to a document without understanding the repercussions of how it directly applies to your role.
posted by pintapicasso at 1:15 PM on March 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure if, practically speaking, this code of conduct (which is what it is) will have any meaningful impact on your job, or how your performance is evaluated. However, it sounds like this code of conduct has been developed, explained and implemented in a clumsy and non-collegial way.

If you want to protect yourself down the road, you could always claim you had to sign "under duress." This column, based on Ontario labour law, provides a useful 5-point set of criteria for determining whether a contract or agreement has been signed under duress:

When Can An Employment Agreement Be Voided For Duress

Criteria #1, of course, is whether or not one has "protested" when signing a contract.

In your case it means stating that you are uncomfortable with the code of conduct, and you state why in a constructive way.

Another criteria to consider is whether or not you have sought legal advice. If you have serious concerns about the code conduct, you should probably talk to an employment lawyer. They aren't that expensive, and can probably answer your question in about twenty minutes (they might prorate the time).

This Globe and Mail column also makes a good point:

While there are no provisions in law that give you a grace period to examine the document, "it's a reasonable request to ask for time to review a contract, and obtain legal advice," Ms. Rubin notes. "If they say, 'No, you must sign now,' that should give you pause. That should tell you a lot about your prospective employer."
posted by My Dad at 1:42 PM on March 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Big bag of nopes written all over this.

I'm all for a common workplace culture, and we do have employment agreements that our staff sign that dictate things like confidentiality, non-compete, general code of conduct, etc., but I would never force someone sign this kind of agreement, nor would I expect any US based attorney to counsel me to do so.

On principle alone I would walk away from this organization, but you've got to ask yourself: do I want to be part of an organization that would require this? If the answer is yes, then by all means, go forward with the full knowledge that you're likely going to have people judging you not by your productive effort, but by their subjective analysis of your adherence to their "values".

I don't say that in a snarky tone, but this requirement would be enough for me to walk away.
posted by tgrundke at 4:55 PM on March 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Would that it were so simple, tgrundke. (Also, Canadian here.)

While I am currently more employable than I've been in some time, my history of mental illness has left me with a less than stellar resume, and this place has been a step up. I would very much like to not let this stick in my craw. My identification as "mentally ill"(for me - a psychiatrized trauma survivor) is part of the funding mechanism that pays me. So things like equity and social justice sound nice, but I also don't make minimum wage.

However, you've pinpointed exactly what my objection is, it adds a level of self-surveillance that isn't conducive to my mental health. The irony.
posted by Paddle to Sea at 5:09 PM on March 3, 2017

Where I live (which is not Canada) the employer has a responsibility to ensure staff have a workplace free from discrimination and harassment, so we have a workplace policy outlining values about people of all ages, races, sexual orientations, etc., having a right to equal opportunity and freedom from harassment, etc. It may well be part of some "staff policies" packet I assented to when I was hired. Is that the kind of "lefty boilerplate social justice ideas" statement you're describing? Stuff like this?
posted by salvia at 5:55 PM on March 3, 2017

things like equity and social justice sound nice, but I also don't make minimum wage.

This may be part of the problem you're having with this. As FirstMateKate notes, they're trying to get the credit without actually being any of those things. Can you bring that up to the drafter?
posted by corb at 6:33 PM on March 3, 2017

Response by poster: Unfortunately no, salvia.

It talks about "promoting" certain values. It all sounds very aspirational, but then.. "adhere". It also labels an innocuous-enough word like "creativity" as a 'principle'. Then a few unfalsifiable claims and vague commitments... It's either really wierd or really dumb on someone's part, because one part sounds like a non-disclosure agreement, but without any specifics.
posted by Paddle to Sea at 6:45 PM on March 3, 2017

Response by poster: I don't know who the drafter is, and although I have a pretty good idea who it might be, they were not the person who presented this to me and then told me it's not optional.
posted by Paddle to Sea at 6:48 PM on March 3, 2017

Best answer: I live in Ontario and have consulted a lawyer on a few occasions regarding freelance NDAs and non-denigration clauses. On each occasion he said that the things they were asking for were so badly defined or stupid - like I'd never denigrate an employee, director (or family member) of that company or employee, director (or family member) of a client of that ever evolving list of people that would number in the thousands) that it was safe to sign. You can demand anything in a contract but fortunately, Ontario law doesn't automatically enforce those demands. IANAL (I only pay them)
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:55 PM on March 3, 2017

...a lawyer can look at it for a couple hundred bucks...just to assure you that it's ridiculous.
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:03 PM on March 3, 2017

Response by poster: Yeah I'm on ODSP (disability) so a couple hundred's way outta my budget. (The consensus in Ontario is that it's best if people with disabilities are trapped in poverty.)

But thanks for the "safe to sign". One person IRL told me the same thing, that the vaguely defined elements make it unenforceable.
posted by Paddle to Sea at 7:11 PM on March 3, 2017

Best answer: You're overthinking this. I'm not a Canadian lawyer, but you are not entering into an enforceable contract to adhere to any possible interpretation of "honoring the creative expressivity of others" or whatever silliness when you sign this document. And if they want to fire you for not living up to organizational standards, they'll do it irrespective of whether you sign the document.

What you will do if you put up a fuss about signing this is signal strongly that you lack judgment and understanding of priorities--perhaps even that you are actively hostile to whatever mission the organization has. This is the kind of thing that gets you labelled as a pain in the ass and a tedious nitpicker who doesn't understand that not everything must be taken literally. Which would be fine, if signing this document was likely to harm you or was truly offensive to your values. But it doesn't sound like either is the case here. Don't do this to yourself.
posted by praemunire at 10:46 PM on March 3, 2017 [9 favorites]

(Sorry, I should make clear that I don't personally think you're a pain in the ass, etc., but that's the way it's likely to be perceived by the kind of people who are stuck enforcing the signing of values statements dreamed up by their bosses.)
posted by praemunire at 10:57 PM on March 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Sounds like discretion is the better part of valor here. You need this job. Just sign the dumb thing. You don't need to be the squeaky wheel. You won't win a round for justice even if they exempt you. There is no moral high ground worth staking out.
posted by spitbull at 11:36 PM on March 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Good points. Thanks, everyone.

The non-collegial way this is being presented makes it clear that any resistance or discussion on my part has a much greater capacity to do myself more harm than anyone any good.

And, I can accept that this feels like propaganda intentionally designed to humiliate without sacrificing my time, energy, and mental health, when I'd end up feeling the same fucking way in the end, only poorer.
posted by Paddle to Sea at 6:47 AM on March 4, 2017

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