Fighting Back: When an employer weaponizes mental illness

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Editor's Note

This article is sponsored by Nelligan Law

It was shortly after Carrie (not her real name) disclosed a longstanding mental health issue to her supervisor that the harassment started.

A 15-year veteran of a large multinational company, Carrie was a successful regional director that had grown her line of business from its infancy into one of the company’s most successful business units. She had been the first Canadian female appointed to the firm’s board of directors. And she was one of the only women in the company’s senior leadership group.

Carrie says none of that mattered after her mental health disclosure, which triggered “two or three years of tyrannical abuse” by her supervisor – who also happened to be the president of the company’s Canadian arm.

“He started weaponizing my mental illness against me, saying I wasn’t doing my job well. That I wasn’t getting along with people,” she explains, despite her strong performance and long history at the company.

A constructive dismissal and strong recommendation

It wasn’t until a fateful board meeting, however, that Carrie fully realized the seriousness of the situation. She’d just delivered a board presentation when, minutes later, her boss asked her to an impromptu meeting where he in effect constructively dismissed her.

“He pulled me into a room and said, ‘You’ve got to give your business to Jerry and step aside,’” she recalls, adding that Jerry (not his real name) was her direct report. “He told me to give up my job to the person who reports to me, and that I was going to report to him from now on."

Carrie knew her time at the company had come to an end, and that she needed legal help. So she reached out to five of her friends in Ottawa’s business community to recommend the best HR law firm in town. 

“It was unanimous,” she says, noting that everyone pointed her towards Nelligan Law.  

Despite the strong vote of confidence, however, preparing herself for that initial meeting wasn’t easy – to the point where Carrie says she almost called the whole thing off in the parking lot. “I had serious second thoughts,” she says. 

Mental health the No. 1 priority

Nelligan Law employment lawyer Malini Vijaykumar says similarly aggrieved employees often have second thoughts before speaking to counsel. In many instances they may even doubt the validity of their case entirely. That’s because “no one will ever admit to discriminating against you,” she says. “No one will ever admit to acting in bad faith. And the person who suffers always thinks, ‘am I being the crazy one?’

“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 at ease with Vijaykumar. “Malini was so good at creating that human connection,” Carrie says, “versus only focusing on the business side.”

While Carrie’s mistreatment by her former employer became obvious during their first meeting, Nelligan’s Vijaykumar says the priority was her 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 are not up to that,” she explains, adding that these types of cases rarely go to trial. “So let's get out what we need to get out and preserve her position.”

When Carrie went on leave, Nelligan Law had initially put the company on notice – with a promise to revisit the issue once Carrie had recovered. When the time came, an official demand letter was delivered to her former employer.

“We told them, ‘Here are all the things you've done wrong. You've discriminated against this person. You've constructively dismissed her. You've forced her out of her job. And we’re claiming all attendant entitlements from that.’”

A six-figure settlement

Interestingly, Vijaykumar says, the delay ended up working in Carrie’s favour: After conducting an internal investigation, her former employer came back with a much-increased offer.  

After more than a year and a half of back-and-forth legal wrangling, Carrie received a tax-free, six-figure settlement – and has finally been able to move on with her life. 

And her former boss that caused her so much grief? He left the company shortly afterward.

“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 why I was able to do this.”