Wegmans is a grocery store with an absolutely stellar reputation. They are currently in the number two spot on Fortune's Top 100 Companies to Work for, and they've been on that list for the past 21 years. They promote from within, they offer scholarships, and their employees generally love them. 

All of this contributes to the shock I felt when employment attorney Jon Hyman brought a recent lawsuit against Wegmans to my attention. Hyman explained the lawsuit as follows:

[Jordan Bartman] recently filed suit against her ex-employer, alleging that when she requested FMLA leave for chronic depression and anxiety, her manager told her to "suck it up," and chastised her for being a "burden to all the kitchen staff." She claims that the more she was harassed and singled out, the more her condition worsened, which in turn led to a greater need for leave, and even more harassment. Ultimately she was fired for "chronic absences, tardiness, and failure to follow [call-in] procedures."

Any of you with the slightest understanding of FMLA and conditions such as depression and anxiety know that, if true, this is a huge law violation. 

Now, here are all my disclosures: I worked for Wegmans Human Resources from 1999-2001 in their corporate office in Rochester, NY, and in the regional office in Princeton, NJ. It is my absolute favorite place in the entire world to grocery shop (and I'm well traveled). I know they take employee healthcare very seriously. And I'm horrified to think that my beloved Wegmans would treat a depressed employee so terribly.

So, my first instinct is to say "there is more to this story." And this is true with any lawsuit filing. It's only one side and Wegmans has not yet responded. 

But, there's a side of me that believes it could be true, and this is a lesson for all of you who run businesses. 

Train, train, train

It doesn't matter what your corporate policies are if your line management doesn't know. And a line manager may never actually have to handle an FMLA claim, so it's not on her radar if you haven't trained and coached in advance. 

It can seem perfectly logical to tell an employee that whines about something to "suck it up" but when that whine is accompanied by a request for FMLA or is about something that could be eligible (and depression and anxiety can be), that is an absolutely inappropriate response.

Every line manager needs to know when to bring HR in and should understand that no one gets told to "suck it up" when a health problem is in play.

Growth makes company culture difficult

Wegmans has had phenomenal growth. And people beg them to open a store in their area. When I worked in their headquarters, many of my coworkers had started their careers with Wegmans as teenagers, attended college on Wegmans scholarships, and now worked in the corporate office. Store management was the same. The company culture was in their blood.

But, when you grow quickly, you can't fill your leadership roles with people who have worked for the company for years and understand the culture inside and out. It's just impossible. Now, I don't know how long the manager who allegedly told Bartman to "suck it up" had worked there, but I do know it was in a Massachusetts store that opened in 2011. Seven years is a long time, but maybe not long enough.

When you are expanding, it's critical to make sure you maintain your company culture and policies.

Every business has bad eggs

No matter how fabulous your senior leadership team is, no matter how stellar your HR managers are, the bigger you are, the more likely it is that you'll hire a dud. Now, in fairness, this could be the manager in this situation or it could be the former employee who is suing. Until this goes to court or Wegmans makes a statement, we can't judge. But, someone did something wrong here.

It will happen to your business as well. So make sure you correct and discipline correctly. Make sure you don't allow managers to fire people without approval from above. Make sure that you don't always assume the manager is right and the employee is wrong.

Now, while I hope that Wegmans wasn't in the wrong, but if they are, then they need to make it right and ensure this never happens again. And if you have a manager that tells sick or disabled employees to just suck it up, fix that right now as you're almost surely in violation of federal law.

Published on: Aug 11, 2018