November 1, 2012
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What does the recent big win for a bullied employee against Walmart mean for advisors and their clients? Take bullying and harassment seriously.
The generous award shows that juries are prepared to punish companies that do not provide a harassment-free working environment for their employees. The message for employers—both advisors with their own employees and their small business clients—is that all claims of bullying and harassment must be taken very seriously, investigated and acted upon. This may involve bringing in an independent third party to conduct the investigation in particularly sensitive cases.
Otherwise the company runs the risk of having to pay significant damages ordered against both the company and its employees. And the collateral fallout could also include serious damage to the company’s reputation.
The lawyer for the employee, Myron Shulgan, says if Walmart had taken her client’s complaints seriously and acted promptly, she never would have risked going to court. If she had been unsuccessful, it could have cost her $70,000 or more in legal fees. “She was not motivated by financial gain. After the jury said she was constructively dismissed, she felt vindicated. She had no idea how much the jury awarded her until I told her,” she says.
Awards of punitive damages are not common in Canadian employment law cases. However, a British Columbia jury recently awarded Larry Higginson $809,000 in wrongful dismissal damages and punitive damages against Babine forest Products. The company later appealed and the parties settled out of court.
Jacqueline Power, a University of Windsor assistant professor of business management who specializes in workplace bullying, has been quoted in the media as saying: “This is the big case and it’s going to change the way Canadians see workplace bullying, absolutely. It’s similar to what sexual harassment was 20 years ago. People just had to put up with sexual harassment in the workplace. Then they started having large legal judgments and human resources departments began to take it seriously.”
Walmart plans to appeal the verdict. However, Shulgan says that ordinarily courts show great deference to jury verdicts because the punitive damages award is an amount the jury believes is required to punish the wrongdoer and deter it from continuing the wrongful conduct in the future.
Shulgan is also acting for three other female assistant managers from the same Windsor Walmart location with similar allegations. They are seeking at least $500,000 in damages from the company.