Jill Colter had barely been back to work at Clay Nissan in Norwood, Mass. for three weeks when she was fired with little explanation. Still in the throes of stage 4 cancer, she had been on medical leave for two months, after receiving radiation treatment and chemotherapy for a brain tumor.
UPDATE (Sept. 13, 2012): A Superior Court judge has ruled that what the Colter family said about Clay Nissan was wrong, and that it constituted defamation of the dealership. The Colters were ordered by the court to pay $1.5 million after damaging Clay's reputation and severely impacting business.
Shortly after Colter's canning her family decided to wage online war against the dealership — enlisting the help of a petition, a Facebook page, and a bunch of angry, incredulous supporters — its ownership backpedaled, offering to give her job back. But the damage had already been done.
The dealership gave as its reason for firing her that they were "going in a different direction," claiming that because Colter was an "at-will employee," they could fire her for any reason, at any time. Colter said that the dealership would not give her more detailed information about why she was being let go.
Colter's family contends that while it may be true that the company was well within its legal right to fire Colter without giving an explanation, it was the wrong way to go about things, especially with someone who was struggling with a deadly bout of melanoma.
"There was no counseling, no coaching, and there were no complaints from other employees or customers — nothing," said Colter's brother, Jonathan Colter. "In the last 24 years, she's had three jobs and she's never been fired. She's tough, but this has been pretty damn deflating."
He also said that that Scott Clay, the president of Clay Family Dealerships, Inc., called his sister two weeks after her manager at Clay Nissan had fired her — a mere three days after the Colter family created a Boycott Clay Nissan Facebook page — to offer her job back.
"That's pure damage control," Colter said. "It's lame and it isn't genuine."
The Colter family also drafted a petition to Clay Nissan's president on Change.org, which has already gotten more than 800 signatures. Here's what it says:
We the people demand a public apology and an admission of wrong doing in the firing of Jill Colter from your dealership on June 12th, 2012. As you know, Jill has Stage 4 Melanoma in the brain. You offered no cause and terminated her without cause. You sir, should be ashamed of yourself. Your actions have caused a woman battling a horrible infliction to suffer pain and anguish in a time where she needed compassion, understanding and empathy. She is receiving this now from us, the people who also happen to be consumers and will not patronize any of your automobile dealerships until you and your company prove yourselves worthy of our business.
i just signed the petition against Clay Nissan demanding a public apology and an admission of wrongdoing.
Good Day Sir!
This isn't the first time Clay Family Dealerships, Inc. (Clay Nissan's parent company) has been accused of stiffing its workers. Two years ago, the Massachusetts Attorney General's office investigated the company for failing to pay overtime to more than 100 employees and former employees. It ended up having to pay $280,000 in restitution, plus fees to the AG's office.
We reached out to Scott Clay, President of Clay Nissan of Norwood, for comment, and he said that there was a legitimate reason for Jill Colter's firing.
We understand the anger on display about this incredibly emotional topic, especially as the online campaign chose to block all communications from us and coworkers who have tried to share positive things about their treatment by our company. The truth reflects – as you might expect – a much more balanced and human story.
The employee's managers knew about her illness during the interview process, and it was never a deterrent to hiring her. As with other past and current employees facing serious health concerns, we were happy to provide the time off needed for treatment and recuperation.
When we learned about her firing, we immediately looked into the reasons behind it. During employment, coworkers had complained the employee was difficult to work with, but she had never been formally counseled about this. We believed that her illness and treatment could have affected her relationships, and we decided that her firing was not in keeping with the way our family has run this company for over 60 years.
I personally called her that same day to invite her back to work at any of our dealerships, with all back-pay included. The employee asked for time to think about it, and then asked for more time to consider her options. We unfortunately have not heard from her since.
Jonathan Colter cried foul on Clay's claim that his sister was offered her job back the same day she was axed. It isn't that simple, he said. First off, he said Clay waited two weeks to call, and that his offer came a few days after the Colter family had already begun waging their online siege against the company. Plus, he said Clay offered her a job working at one of the company's other dealerships.
"If she worked at another dealership, she'd have to get certified and trained for another brand, and it would lower her earning potential," he said, adding that without the support of her family and friends, Jill Colter would have been in trouble vis-a-vis paying her medical bills and living expenses.
In his statement, Scott Clay essentially told us that his company isn't as sleazy as this particular case makes it appear, that despite all the trouble, they're still a family business.
The situation has opened our eyes on an operational front, and we are stepping up our managers' training to ensure that there is a better understanding of these situations across the organization.
The online campaign, meanwhile, is very vocal on negative rhetoric but posts no information about the efforts we've made to find a solution or about our internal work to improve our practices. We are a family-owned and operated company with a long history in the Boston area. We are active in charity, in our communities, and we take great pride in our customers and in our 220 employees. Over the years, a number of our staff have battled cancer, other serious illnesses, and non-work related injuries; we worked with them to keep them employed, insured, and a part of our family. As always, we will continue to do all these things and to strive for ongoing improvement.
We still hope that she will return to work with us. We would welcome her back.
Jonathan Colter is not convinced of the company's good will, and that what they offered doesn't do right by his sister. The damage has been done: he said going back to work for the manager who fired her would be too stressful at a time when MRIs and chemo pills occupy much of her time and energy. Taking a job at another dealership would be a demotion. Anyway you slice it, he said his sister loses out.
But Colter pointed out that Clay won't get off the hook all that easily. Already, quite a few people have expressed interest in picketing Clay Nissan next weekend.
"People feel good about helping someone out," he said.
Photo credit: Facebook, Clay Nissan