JUSTICE

Backstabbers beware

NORA UNDERWOOD May 30 1988
JUSTICE

Backstabbers beware

NORA UNDERWOOD May 30 1988

Backstabbers beware

JUSTICE

The competitive nature of most institutions often encourages aggressive employees to scramble up the corporate ladder at the expense of co-workers. But backstabbers now must beware because of a fired executive who acted on his belief that a coworker had caused his dismissal. He took his former colleague to court—and after a nine-day trial he won a favorable judgment and $80,000 in compensation. Supreme Court of Ontario Justice John O’Driscoll ruled last month that Max Roehl, 61, the former general manager and executive vice-president of Ottawa-based Nortec Air Conditioning Industries Ltd., had fallen victim to “a concerted plan” by Joseph Houlahan, 42, to succeed Roehl. In his decision, O’Driscoll wrote that Houlahan ‘Vent after the plaintiff’s job, which he coveted; he did it with determination and without any concern for the health or welfare of the plaintiff.”

O’Driscoll’s judgment is the first of its kind in Canada in an employment case, according to Roehl’s Ottawabased lawyer, Denis Power. And Power said that he believed the ruling would send a strong message out to other corporate climbers—that there could be a price to pay for unscrupulous office politics. Indeed, the judge ordered Houlahan to pay Roehl almost $65,000—a decision that Houlahan is appealing—and the company to pay about $15,000 in lost bonuses and vacation time. “Healthy competition is

good for everybody,” said Power. “But there has to be a line. There have to be rules of the game.”

Roehl’s case began on Nov. 9, 1982. At that time, officials from Condair, a Swiss-based firm that had substantial interests in Nortec, hired him as Nortec’s second-in-command. But eight days later Nortec president Jean Guay—who had not supported that hiring decision—promoted Houlahan to vice-president, finance and administration. By the end of that month relations between Houlahan and Roehl had soured dramatically, and, O’Driscoll concluded, Houlahan refused to cooperate with Roehl, as well as denigrating him to their superiors. Those tactics succeeded: Nortec fired Roehl on April 27, 1983, with one day’s notice and six months’ pay.

In his judgment, O’Driscoll said that Roehl was “an honest, hardworking gentleman who walked into a hornet’s nest” and who in the end was “left in the lurch” by the people who had hired him. Roehl, who now works as a plastics salesman in Montreal, is celebrating his victory on a one-month holiday in Europe. And Power predicted that other victims of corporate power plays may soon follow his client’s lead. Since the ruling, in fact, Power’s office has received calls from potential clients. Their common purpose: to knock the corporate climbers down a few rungs.

NORA UNDERWOOD