Letter From London: Career Sabotage

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Many employees who suffer at the hands of their employers don't pursue them for fear of career blight, or worse.

It takes a great deal of grit and determination - and funds - to take on a big organization, as shown in the recent Zubulake and Vilalba discrimination cases on either side of the Atlantic.

Even if you win, there is the danger that your career will suffer terminal damage. It's a major stumbling block for those considering fighting their corner.

City of London solicitor Elizabeth Weston won 1-million from Merrill Lynch in an out-of-court settlement after claiming sex discrimination last year. This week she launched another action against her former employers, claiming that the firm has sabotaged her subsequent career.

Ms Weston, who earned 60,000 a year in the legal department at Merrill Lynch, now works for another investment bank. After the case, she tried to obtain a place at business school. She claims that instead of giving her a reference for the course as promised, Merrill Lynch legal head Nicholas Hall wrote a 'vindictive' appraisal of her.

Ms Weston alleges that this was because the firm wanted to punish her for making the original claim against it. It certainly gives you pause for thought if you're contemplating any sort of legal action at employment tribunal.

Little surprise therefore that most bank employees express a lively fear of taking on their employers, in case they appear on an unofficial 'blacklist.' It's a notion that tends to favor the paranoid, with the attitude of "You'll never work in this town again if you sue" being the perceived outcome of any proceedings. Whether or not such a blacklist exists has been persistently denied by employers. Yet the rumours persist...

And there are horror stories out there: take the case of Michael Johnson, who was axed from his job as an IT project manager with Perot Systems. Johnson is suing the company for $10 million in the British High Court, claiming a damning reference from a former work colleague cost him his job at Deutsche Bank.

Simon Hull, Johnson's colleague at Perot Systems, said working with Johnson 'Was the most horrendous episode that I have ever experienced in my working life'. The reference also alleged that Johnson had been 'kicked out' from another bank for obtaining a mortgage fraudulently. Hull is co-defendant in the case.

For Johnson, this appears not so much an example of career blight, as career assassination. He hasn't been able to work since losing his position at Deutsche.

A reference suggesting misconduct or failure to perform professionally is potentially defamatory, which is why most HR departments tend to stick to the standard formula of giving dates employed and position occupied, with no comment on performance or otherwise. Anything fruitier is potentially explosive, as Perot has learned to its cost.

Banks have the reputation of being courtroom bullies, and have been punished for it in New York courts. London appears to lag behind the US in terms of awarding punitive damages in cases where banks have deliberately muddied the waters and dragged things out in the hope that plaintiffs will lose heart and drop their claims.

Morgan Stanley's reputation for fair play suffered severe damage in the US case brought by Ronald Perelman, which resulted in Perelman winning $1.45-billion in damages from the bank. It appears Morgan Stanley is blaming everybody but themselves, and looks set to appeal.

Perelman claimed that early on in the dispute, in a meeting between his lawyers and the Morgan Stanley legal team, they were treated to a PowerPoint display which included thinly veiled threats to Perelman if he pursued the case.

He fought on anyway, and won one of the biggest payouts ever. But Perelman was a wealthy client, not an employee, so sticking to your guns will be a very different scenario when you're a lone soul taking on an organisation with huge resources to aim at you.

Speaking as someone who's given one global bank merry hell for the last couple of years (for misdemeanours over redundancy and failures to supply employee data), I didn't believe that the so-called blacklist existed, as my other half slotted into another job really quickly.

Now he's out of a job for the second time, I'm beginning to wonder......