Ex-CEO with Breast Cancer Alleges Discrimination

Is it possible for a woman undergoing treatment for breast cancer to successfully manage a multinational corporation?  Apparently, for the Tuesday Morning Board of Directors, the answer was no.

Last week the Financial Post featured an article about ex-CEO Kathleen Mason allegedly having been fired for disclosing that she was being treated for breast cancer.  Mason was diagnosed in summer of 2011, had undergone 3 surgeries, and came into the office following early morning post-operative visits to maintain her workload.  According to her lawyer, by all accounts, she was operating at 100%.  When she began losing weight and hair as a result of treatment, she decided it was time to let the Board know.  According to Mason, their answer was an ultimatum – she could resign or be fired.

Accommodate:  Though your knee-jerk reaction might be, “how will this look to our shareholders?” remember that you are still dealing with a situation that might involve accommodation.  Before drawing any conclusions, check your stigma at the door, and open a line of communication with the employee.  Taking this first step can go a long way in refuting claims of discrimination.

Manage Timing:  If Tuesday Morning made the decision to release Mason independent of medical concerns, then they would have been wise to delay the transition.

Follow Procedures:  Mason had been the President and CEO for 12 years.  Months prior to her diagnosis, she had received an extended contract and $500,000 bonus.  Justifiably, she asks, “if there were problems with my performance, why give me a bonus?”  If the board had intentions of changing directions, they could have done so in a more delicate and procedural manner.  In an article in the Globe and Mail, Employment lawyer David Whitten stresses, the main objective for both management and the board should be damage control when you are going to change the captain on the ship.  And that is done by a concerted message that both parties agree with and a messaging strategy that both parties stick with.

All of the facts thus far point towards two scenarios – either Tuesday Morning fired Mason for a prohibited ground of discrimination, or they handled a very sensitive situation with poor judgment.  With Canada gearing up for CIBC’s annual Run for the Cure , a story like this could easily go viral, which could prove detrimental for Tuesday Morning, regardless of the verdict on their guilt.