with Stephen Hammond
Tip #16 — CONSIDERING THE COST OF HARASSMENT - 2
If management gets a lawyer to represent the business, you're looking at an hourly fee of between $250 and $500 per hour - maybe more. When the work begins you don't get to say "Please stop at $10,000.00 since that's all we budgeted." The meter on that fee will run for:
— all meetings in which you explain your side to your lawyer;
— the time the lawyer spends preparing and defending your position;
— her time spent researching the latest legal cases.
Rarely are these cases simple. Most are complex on several fronts at once, requiring time to sort through all the players and actions. And don't be surprised to pay a legal bill of between $5,000 and $20,000 to secure a settlement - an amount that does not include any settlement award.
When you can't settle and you go to a human rights tribunal or a court case (a wrongful dismissal case might be an example of such a situation), depending on the length of the proceedings, your costs can easily exceed $20,000. A while ago I heard of a wrongful dismissal case at B.C.'s Supreme Court, just a few blocks from my office, where a union had fired one of its business reps for sexual harassment, and he was suing the union for wrongful dismissal. That portion of the trial was expected to last ten days alone, and involved two lawyers for the fired business rep and two lawyers for the union employer, all in front of the judge, plus a U.S. lawyer from the union's American office.
During the less than one hour of testimony I sat in on, one witness was admitting to some, but not all, of the harmful sexual comments that were alleged. I kept picturing the clock ticking away for those five lawyers. If the union's management had taken the simplest of steps, they wouldn't have been in this mess playing out in court.
The average award in general damages in Canadian human rights cases is relatively small, when compared with other legal proceedings, but those numbers are climbing. Getting a $5,000 award or less for general damages is still common, but a number of recent cases have gone beyond the perceived $20,000 ceiling. The courts and tribunals still want to keep the general damages low to reflect the "remedial" nature of the human rights process, but due to inappropriate responses from management, the dollar figures can be surprising. Just ask one Canadian city who recently had to pay approximately $800,000 for their bungling of a straight-forward complaint.
But many employers don't fear large awards will be forced upon them. Perhaps not, but I say the process and legal costs are enough of a deterrent. Regardless, some of the biggest expenditures come from lost wages.
1) Talk to your lawyers ahead of time - they will love you for it. While a lawyer can make lots of money fighting or settling a case, if she is worth her salt, she has plenty of business and money anyway. If you can spend a few minutes or hours talking to a lawyer before a problem gets out of hand, you may save yourself a lot of cash
2) Mix the advice with your business sense - because it's probably quite good. Get the information from the lawyer, but consider what you know makes sense. And don't be afraid to tell the lawyer this is what you're going to do. He may then alert you to the upsides and downsides of your plan of action.
3) Decide which advice you need - as it can help you zero in on a situation. A consultant can help you with general and even specific issues, but there will be times you need independent legal advice. You may get your advice from many sources, but be sure you know what you're looking for...to avoid spending too much time and money just asking everyone, everything. Your time is money - something very precious. When asked what people really want, it's usually “time." When we're spending time on any part of a harassment complaint, that is taking time away from the job we've been paid to do. That's costly.
This is TIP #16 of 52 WEEKLY TIPS for managers and supervisors.
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