For years advocates for the Healthy Workplace Bill have remained loyal to their legislative template and argued that options like Ontario’s Bill 168 aren’t adequate to address workplace bullying. They also prefer an approach that discourages large lawsuits. Looks like it’s time for legislators to take another look at alternative approaches — enforcement of Bill 168 may have fallen short — but large lawsuits equal change:
Walmart case could help bullied workers: Professor [The Windsor Star, October 12, 2012
The $1.46-million award a former Walmart assistant manager won this week in Windsor for mistreatment by a boss could make workplaces more civil across Canada, says an expert on workplace bullying.
The Windsor ruling — the highest such award in Canadian history — for the first time has turned mass media attention to bullying at work, instead of simply, say, bullying at school.
“This is the big case and it’s going to change the way Canadians see workplace bullying, absolutely,” said Jacqueline Power, a University of Windsor assistant professor of business management who specializes in workplace bullying. “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.”
Power said Ontario’s Bill 168, introduced in 2009 to protect workers from violence and harassment on the job, set the stage. But she said enforcement didn’t follow as promised, so it fell to court cases to lay out the law — starting with Meredith Boucher.
Last month Boucher launched a lawsuit against Walmart, where she had worked for 10 years, after she felt forced to leave the company in November 2009. A jury agreed the 42-year-old Chatham woman suffered daily abuse from Jason Pinnock, 32, then the manager of the east Windsor Walmart where she worked, who would berate her with profane and insulting language over six months, often in front of others.
She filed a suit alleging intentional infliction of mental suffering, sexual harassment and discrimination, and assault by an assistant manager who punched her in the arm two days in a row and was subsequently fired.
The jury of three men and three women gave her nothing for sexual harassment and discrimination, but handed her a whopping award for her other claims: $1.21 million against Walmart and $250,000 against Pinnock.
Power said the judgment sets another precedent beyond being the richest such award in Canada. She said it also marks the first time someone has successfully won for general bullying by a boss, without the victim having to fall into a special category of female, visible minority, gay or anything else.
“This is the first time that we have recognized that you can be a white male and still be treated badly at work,” she said, noting the irony that it took a woman to fight for such protection for all. “In the United States, they have decided explicitly that they will not enforce civility. But in Canada, we now look after white men, as well.
“So it’s an extremely brave thing for this person to bring it to court. And because she was so brave, she has changed the legal environment for all employees.”
Power said even if the award is reduced on appeal, she said Walmart has lost through bad publicity, and that other companies will take notice, especially if other large awards follow suit.
Boucher’s lawsuit is actually only the first of four against Walmart Canada, all by female assistant managers seeking at least $500,000 in damages, all from the same store, all alleging the same thing in 2009 and 2010: abusive treatment by a manager. Plaintiffs Robbie Varsava, Lori Lindsey and Samantha Russell all allege in separate statements of claim they were “belittled and demeaned” in public and spoken to “in a coarse and profane manner” by Pinnock and his replacement at the store on Tecumseh Road East at Lauzon Road, Scott McKinney.
“We are disappointed with the decision and surprised by the highly exceptional damages that have been awarded,” said Andrew Pelletier, vice-president of corporate affairs and sustainability for Walmart Canada. “We’re reviewing the decision in detail now and we will consider all options, including the possibility of an appeal.”
Pelletier said he is surprised not just by the size of the judgment but by the allegations.
“What played out in Windsor is clearly not a representation of who we are as a company,” Pelletier said. “The fact that this is the first case of its kind in Canada, that I’m aware of, is an indication that this isn’t a pattern.”
A number of Walmart employees have launched suits against the company in the United States, however, where some workers have recently threatened to strike, despite the fact they are not unionized.
Walmart Canada opened in 1994 and now has about 90,000 employees. Pelletier said Walmart takes pride in its open-door policy, which companies elsewhere have adopted as a best practice and which assures that employees are always allowed to speak to a boss’s boss without fear of reprisal.
“We take our corporate culture very seriously,” said Pelletier, noting that the Windsor cases have been investigated and that foul or insulting language is not tolerated at Walmart. “We’re a people-driven company and the most important facet of our business is our associates.
“We work hard to activate a daily culture of respect for the individual.”
Pelletier said he finds it interesting that the same lawyer, Myron Shulgan, is leading all four lawsuits stemming from the east Windsor Walmart.
Shulgan said he wants to help employees who were not protected even after management heard their alarming complaints.
“What was disappointing was the lack of intervention undertaken by Walmart once the concerns of these employees were made known to them,” Shulgan said. “The message the jury sent in the Boucher case is that we will not tolerate abuse in the workplace anymore.”
The woman at the centre of the case, meanwhile, says only one person treated her abusively but that it affected her deeply. Court heard that Boucher spoke to senior Walmart managers about the abuse several times. Not only was nothing done about it, she was told she would be held accountable for her accusations.
She became physically ill, lost weight, sought counselling, and was treated for stress. And then she took it to court, risking having to pay Walmart’s substantial court costs if she lost. The week before the trial began, her mother had a heart attack and her father-in-law was given his last rites, though he has since improved. On the second day of trial her daughter underwent knee surgery.
The David-and-Goliath fight almost had her surrender, but with her husband’s encouragement she persevered — and became a millionaire in the process.
She never realized she would help launch a movement, too.
“I think it’s a good thing,” said Boucher, who prayed that she would have the grace to accept whatever decision the jury handed down. “Bottom line, it doesn’t matter if you’re working or not. We’re all people. Nobody wants to be talked to in that manner, nobody wants to be treated that way.
“I’m just happy that I had the opportunity to stand up for myself.”
- New Workplace Bullying Book Offers Hope! (bullyinworkplace.com)
- What To Do When You Work For A Bully (forbes.com)
- $1.46 Million Workplace Bullying Win in Canada Overshadows U.S. Struggle For A Law (bullyinworkplace.com)