Fight back: When an employer weaponizes mental illness
It was shortly after Carrie (pseudonym) disclosed a long-standing mental health issue to her supervisor that the harassment began.
A 15-year veteran of a large multinational, Carrie was a successful regional manager who had grown her line of business from its early days into one of the company’s most successful business units. She was the first Canadian woman appointed to the firm’s board of directors. And she was one of the only women in the company’s leadership group.
Carrie says none of it mattered after her mental health revelation, which sparked “two or three years of tyrannical abuse” from her supervisor – who also happened to be the president of the Canadian branch of the company.
“He started to weaponize my mental illness against me, saying I wasn’t doing my job well. That I didn’t get along with people,” she explains, despite her strong performance and long experience in the business.
Constructive dismissal and a strong recommendation
It wasn’t until a fateful board meeting, however, that Carrie fully realized the seriousness of the situation. She had just made a presentation to the board of directors when, a few minutes later, her boss invited her to an impromptu meeting where he actually fired her constructively.
“He pulled me into a room and said, ‘You have to take your business to Jerry and walk away,'” she recalled, adding that Jerry (not her real name) was her direct report. “He told me to hand over my job to whoever reports to me, and that I would report to him from now on.”
Carrie knew her time in the business was over and she needed legal help. So she contacted five of her friends from the Ottawa business community to recommend the best HR law firm in town.
“It was unanimous,” she says, noting that everyone pointed her to Nelligan’s Law.
Despite the strong vote of confidence, however, preparing for that first meeting hasn’t been easy — to the point where Carrie says she nearly called off everything in the parking lot. “I had serious doubts,” she says.
Mental health priority #1
Nelligan Law labor lawyer Malini Vijaykumar says similarly injured employees often have second thoughts before speaking to an attorney. In many cases, they may even entirely doubt the validity of their cause. That’s because “no one will ever admit to being discriminated against against you,” she says. “No one will ever admit to acting in bad faith. And the person who suffers always thinks, ‘Am I the fool?’
“That’s why it’s important to talk to someone who can say ‘no, from everything you’re telling me, the problem isn’t with you.'”
Carrie immediately felt comfortable with Vijaykumar. “Malini was so good at creating that human connection,” says Carrie, “instead of just focusing on the business side.”
While Carrie’s mistreatment by her former employer became apparent when they first met, Nelligan’s Vijaykumar says the priority was his client’s mental health.
“The plan was that we don’t have to push too hard right away if the client’s physical and mental health isn’t up to par,” she explains, adding that these types of cases rarely result in a court case. “So let’s pull out what we need to pull out and preserve his position.”
When Carrie went on leave, Nelligan Law initially put the company on notice – with a promise to revisit the issue once Carrie recovered. When the time came, an official formal notice was given to his former employer.
“We told them, ‘Here are all the things you did wrong. You have discriminated against this person. You fired her constructively. You forced her to quit her job. And we claim all the rights that flow from it.
A six-figure settlement
Interestingly, says Vijaykumar, the delay ended up working in Carrie’s favor: after conducting an internal investigation, her former employer came back with a much higher offer.
After more than a year and a half of legal back and forth, Carrie received a tax-free six-figure settlement – and was finally able to move on with her life.
And his former boss who caused him so much grief? He left the company shortly thereafter.
“Standing up to him was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she explains. “But the way I was received at Nelligan is a big reason I was able to do this.”