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(Graham Roumieu for The Globe and Mail)
(Graham Roumieu for The Globe and Mail)

Workplace scandal

The rocky road to return after a dismissal Add to ...

You'll have allies - winks and high fives - and enemies - glares, water-cooler whispers and, justified or not, the feeling that everyone at work is talking about you.

Walking back into the office after a conspicuous or unusual absence that has colleagues taking sides can be an awkward exercise at the best of times, something that Penguin Canada's Lisa Rundle is soon to discover.

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Ms. Rundle is set to return to her previous role as rights and contracts director at Penguin in a few weeks after her sexual harassment claim against both the company and her boss, David Davidar, was settled out of court. Mr. Davidar, former president, is no longer with the company.

Returning after termination, workplace scandal or, in Ms. Rundle's case, winning a settlement against your employer, can lead to sticky situations - from reintegrating with employment structure to dealing with office politics.

Experts say it's best to avoid gossiping even if you are not bound by confidentiality agreements.

Bobbi Olsen, lawyer with Ricketts Harris LLP and counsel for Ms. Rundle, says that while she can't comment on the specifics of the case, generally employees returning after a lawsuit are entitled to a safe work environment free from aggravation resulting from the complaint.

However, "with human nature being what it is ... there will inevitably have been debate regarding the credibility of the complainant [among co-workers]" she adds.

Even if you win your case and get your job back, Ms. Olsen says, "there are limitations to what litigation can actually do for a person; it can't 'unring the bell,' so to speak."

Nicole Lilliman was fired and rehired from her job as a cashier at Tim Hortons in London, Ont., within the course of a single day - and all because of a single Timbit. Ms. Lilliman had given a free Timbit to the crying child of a regular customer and made headlines in 2008 when her manager fired her because it's company policy not to give away free food. Later that day, the district manager called her at home to offer her the job back, because her action was not grounds for dismissal.

Ms. Lilliman refused to go back to the same location. "No way," she says. "Because of the manager. I never wanted to see her again." Instead, Ms. Lilliman moved to another Tim Hortons in town, and no one was allowed to talk about it.

"It was very tense," she says. "Everybody wanted to say something but nobody could. I didn't go back for a week."

Ms. Lilliman needed the time to adjust psychologically, she says, even though she'd only been fired for a short while. It took "six or seven months" for things to go back to normal, she says.

Even if you think everyone is talking about you, don't fuel the fire, says Suzanne Gard, psychotherapist, workplace coach and couples counsellor at The Broadview Therapy Centre in Toronto.

"Talk about it," Ms. Gard says, but "just not at work."

Be sure to deal with your feelings on the matter, which could range from relief to anger, she says. But don't put pressure on your colleagues to take sides. "It's not fair to engage them in your despair."

Instead, stick to your work, she advises. And if you love your job but can't get along after a reunion with workers, Ms. Gard suggests requesting a transfer or a new project.

Dismissal over a Timbit can cause upset, but the tension following a sexual harassment or discrimination suit can be toxic.

Nicholas Bader, partner at Campbell Partners LLP says that in these cases, "[where]the workplace has been poisoned by sexual harassment or discrimination, the employee has the right to say that they can't fulfill their contract and leave in what's called a constructive dismissal."

If the employee decides to return once the situation is resolved, the issue is: "What is the company doing to remedy the complaint?" Mr. Bader says. The employer is not legally responsible for retraining employees on its harassment policy after a lawsuit, but if the company is found at fault it has to fire the person responsible for egregious harassment, he says. And, he adds, "It's always a good idea for the victim to see a counsellor."

Mr. Bader acts for both employers and employees dealing with terminations, and for employers he advises on company harassment policies. Ms. Rundle has been gone just over a month in what Mr. Bader says was a fairly quick settlement with an unusual outcome.

"Reinstatement is not typical for non-unionized employers [like Penguin] even where harassment was involved," Mr. Bader says. Reasons range from structural changes and training that have occurred at the company during the employee's absence (if a case goes to court it can take years to resolve), to the fired employee's own personal choice not to return.

It's a different matter if a discrimination complaint is filed with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, or with a unionized employer, he adds. Unions can go to arbitration, and "if the employee was terminated without cause they're usually welcomed back into the fold."

Mr. Bader says that while the outcome isn't common, it seems to be the right choice in Ms. Rundle's case since "she's able to return without having the alleged source of her harassment there. They're creating a new environment."

Even among new employees, rumours travel fast. If you can't resist talking about it, Ms. Gard advises: "Stick to one pat line - 'That was then. This is now. I want to get on with doing the best job that I can.' "

 

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