Breakdown Triggered by Shaming at Work

Wrongful dismissal case was mediated for business owner-turned-employee struggling with mental illness

George grips the metal rail of his hospital bed and tries to raise himself enough to glimpse the clock behind the floral arrangements of well-wishers.

“How long have I been here?! My boss will be furious!”

He feels the familiar panic rising in his throat, despite sedation. He can picture his boss polishing his collection of dress shoes, his cleaning kit methodically laid out on his huge oak desk next to his vintage desk-clock…

Time! George’s eyes snap back to the hospital clock. Time to get back to the office!

His wife, Sharon, gently but firmly pushes him back on the bed as he struggles to rise. “The doctor said more bed rest,” she quietly reminds him.

Impossible! Shame floods George’s system; he swears he can feel hot shame coursing through his veins. His mind races back over the past year…

Type A success

Previously, George had never struggled with anything in his life. A golden boy from childhood in the Napa Valley, and a Stanford MBA graduate, his success with his first shot at starting a business felt as natural to him as everything the overachiever had ever done.

Shortly before establishing his technology firm at age 26, George married his high school sweetheart. Over the next six years, he added employees as he created children: 80 staff; a daughter and a son.

George felt well supported at home and at work. Life was great; super busy, but a good kind of stress. The kind where you’re humming with energy that drives you out of bed raring to greet each day.

Still, entrepreneurs are always hungry, and George was no exception. He wanted more, always more. When the opportunity of starting a related, but untried, business came along, he couldn’t resist. He rushed the decision, and financed the second startup with venture capital.

Too much too soon

Within a year, he was overextended with debt, putting his original company in jeopardy. He had to lay off staff and kill a planned expansion. Another six months on, George was unable to stop the bleeding; he folded the side business, and sold his beloved first company to a multinational corporation hovering around his territory.

Offered an executive position at that corporation, George reluctantly took it. He had a family to provide for, after all, and maybe he could help steer the ship he used to captain? He didn’t have any other options, anyway.

Inside, though, George loathed himself for hurting his employees and his family, for letting his greed and ambition get in his own way. His wife and friends assured him all would be well, but George could only see the chipping away of his golden reputation.

First breakdown

The stress built up – only this time, it wasn’t the good, motivating kind of stress. George took up smoking cigarettes again, a habit he’d given up after college, hiding in the garage so his kids wouldn’t catch him. He started hitting the snooze button, repeatedly, every workday morning. Then George found himself having to call in sick to his new employers, paralyzed in bed with the curtains drawn. He hardly ate, complained that his limbs felt like a hundred pounds each.

Sharon had never seen George in anything but hyper-speed since she met him at 17. She was alarmed but kicked into action – fast-tracking a psychiatrist referral and driving George to his appointments. An antidepressant prescription started to work, and he dusted off his briefcase.

His old zip back, racing around between appointments, George brought his new bosses a new big idea each week. He was sure they would start reaping the benefits of his experience, his innovative thinking, and how he motivated and supported the other employees. George even persuaded his new employers to let him co-manage his pre-existing clients. He was promoted, got a raise. He was elated.

Tough boss

Then, The Colonel arrived at George’s workplace.

The ex-Marine sales executive arrived with that nickname bestowed by previous underlings who’d born his iron leadership. His style was to yell at staff in front of their peers. Rarely did a meeting end without The Colonel tearing a strip off someone – often George. The Colonel didn’t hide his contempt; he shamed George publicly.

The Colonel’s face, twisted in angry sneering and flushed from shouting, kept appearing in George’s dreams. “What kind of man messes up a perfectly good company that he started?…Once a loser, always a loser!”

George would wake up with a heavy weight in his chest; workdays he was hitting the snooze button again, and a bottle of scotch too with growing frequency. The antidepressant pills didn’t help. He took the rest of his accrued sick days and holidays, and stayed in bed. He stopped eating again, stopped going to his psychiatrist appointments.

Sharon called his doctor, and together they agreed to check George into the city hospital’s psychiatry ward for supervision and treatment. George was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic-depressive) and prescribed new meds. He and Sharon hugged each other with relief, the first time in a long while they’d felt close.

George called his employer to let them know he was being treated for a “serious medical condition.” His shame kept him from naming the disorder or disclosing that he was hospitalized. George begged the sympathetic president not give up on him.

George’s bed rest was anything but restful. Released from the hospital, he cut in half the amount of time off his doctor had ordered. What would The Colonel think and say about him at the office? Sharon fought George unsuccessfully over the early return, in front of the kids, something they never did.

Back at work, George redoubled his efforts and won deal after deal. He worked a punishing amount of hours – late evenings with clients, weekends at the office. He got sloppy taking his meds and starting into acute mania, making erratic decisions and risking his health.

When George suggested to Sharon that maybe he should get a cot for his office, since he was hardly sleeping anyway, she marched him back to the psychiatrist. This time, the ordered leave of absence was twice as long and not optional.

George asked his HR department for a sit down with them and the company president. Walking into the HR manager’s office, George saw The Colonel sitting upright, staring impassively ahead. No president.

Shaken, George took a big breath. Remember, recovery of your health comes first, he recalled his doctor’s words.

George managed to croak out information about his bipolar disorder and that he’d been checked into a psychiatric hospital. He requested a leave of absence to deal with his mental illness.

The Colonel stayed uncharacteristically mute; the HR manager made sympathetic sounds and said they’d discuss it further the next day. George left the office feeling grateful the disclosure was done, and passed a restful night.

Unexpected termination

As soon as he entered the HR manager’s office the next morning, The Colonel barked, You’re terminated. Effective immediately. Clean out your desk. Security will walk you out in 10 minutes.

The HR manager didn’t look up from her paperwork. George managed to stammer out, what about my health insurance? She shook her head no.

George’s coworker had to drive him home when Sharon couldn’t be reached. He hung on until his front door before he broke down in tears. He kept thinking over and over was, who fires someone who just disclosed a serious medical condition?

Taking legal action

When George called our employment law firm, we took on one of the most unusual and stressful cases we’d ever handled. His mood swings were sometimes dramatic, and we were careful how and when we updated him on the case.

When we first approached George’s employer, they refused to participate in arbitration – even though they’d required him to sign an arbitration agreement back when they’d bought his firm.

George was still paying back the debt the new owners absorbed when they took ownership. We asked the corporation for much of that debt to be forgiven – given the nature of George’s dismissal and his illness.

The corporation was immoveable in their refusal.

We sued them in federal court for wrongful termination. There were the usual long delays in getting court dates, so we put our case in the queue and went to mediation.

A retired federal judge mediated the case, and helped us reach a settlement that met George’s needs.  Several hundred thousand in debt was retired and the corporation ended up paying George about $300,000, shortly before the scheduled trial date.

On the mend

Our pursuit of justice for George was long and complicated – but ultimately, it was all worthwhile given the satisfactory outcome.

George is on the mend, his disorder managed with meds and a less stressful lifestyle. He’s scaling back his career ambitions, focused on the recovery of his health and spending more time with family. He’s having success interviewing for exciting jobs.

He remains grateful – and his self-esteem is restored with the financial settlement.

Oh, and George’s former employer wrote him a (judge-mandated) positive reference letter.

The Colonel? He’s in early retirement.

Author Photo

Robert Ottinger, Esq.

Robert Ottinger is an employment attorney who focuses on representing executives and employees in employment disputes. Before starting his firm, Robert slugged it out in courtrooms trying cases for the government. Robert served as a Deputy Attorney General for the California Department of Justice in Los Angeles and then as Assistant Attorney General for the New York Attorney General’s Office in Manhattan.

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