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In the Courts: Mining exec claims B.C. company ignored ‘sexist, toxic conduct’

Former vice-president suing for wrongful termination after raising concerns
The B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver

A former leader at Skeena Resources Ltd. (TSX:SKE) is suing her past employer, claiming company executives ignored 18 months of complaints about a toxic work environment for women before firing her after raising those concerns.

Kelly Earle is suing for wrongful termination as senior vice-president of corporate development while she was on medical leave.

According to Earle’s lawsuit, she was previously promoted to the role of vice-president of communications at the company in July 2018 after joining in April 2016 “when it was still a relatively small mining outfit.”

In her role as senior vice-president, Earle claims she was making $350,000 in annual salary, along with an incentive bonus of up to 50 per cent.

“The plaintiff was both personally and professionally invested in [Skeena’s] success and growth,” reads the lawsuit.

“Having experienced deeply institutionalized sexism in the mining industry prior to joining the defendant’s employ, the plaintiff was particularly welcoming of the opportunity to be a driving force for change in this regard in what was, when she joined, a promising startup.”

But as the company grew and Earle was promoted to the senior vice-president role, “she began experiencing all of the sexist, toxic conduct that has come to define the mining industry and, indeed, many other industries that are similarly perceived as ‘old boys’ clubs,’ unfriendly to women.”

Earle’s lawsuit claims the company “ignored, diminished or outright rejected” growing evidence of toxicity in the workplace for women, as several women in the company allegedly filed “numerous” complaints.

“The defendant took no steps to ensure the safety, security or comfort of a significant portion of its workforce,” reads the lawsuit, adding that Earle made “several” verbal complaints.

Specifically, she claims to have complained to executive chairman Walter Coles, CFO Andrew MacRitchieand CEO Randy Reichert about inappropriate behaviour by an adviser to the company.

“The plaintiff states that the defendant largely dismissed her complaints and excused [the adviser’s] conduct as being ‘old school’ and ‘from another time,’” the lawsuit reads.

“When the plaintiff again raised her concerns in the context of a broader discussion in October 2022, she was told that [the adviser] was ‘too important to let go’ and that everyone had their issues. The plaintiff was subsequently advised by Walter Coles … that he did not want his female employees to start their own ‘Me Too movement’ and that the plaintiff should watch what she said around certain of her colleagues.”

Earle claims she was, after that conversation, removed from project financing decisions on the company’s Eskay Creek project, “which clearly fell under her ambit of responsibility as senior vice-president.” 

She also claims she started getting shut out of senior management meetings, “including those that involved communications to the plaintiff’s own department.”

Several female staff and Earle herself allegedly also raised concerns about bullying behaviour by the company’s human resources manager, but the company similarly did not act, according to the lawsuit, which states the issue was only resolved when the manager resigned.

Earle noted in her lawsuit that she went on medical leave in August 2022 as a result of the toxic work environment and that upon returning in mid-September, she was told “she was on ‘thin ice’ and was chastised for ‘checking out.’”

“The plaintiff was advised by Walter Coles that, if anyone else had taken three weeks medical leave, ‘they’d have no job to come back to’ and that she needed to urgently ‘get her head back in the game,’ or words to that effect,” the lawsuit reads.

“The plaintiff communicated to Walter Coles her understanding that she could not be let go for taking medical leave, but was advised that if it happened again, the plaintiff would be fired.”

After Earle raised her concerns, she claims the company abruptly ended a six-and-a-half year arrangement to work partly from home and partly in the office, as she was “strongly advised” to be in the office more to “make a good impression.”

She claims she was openly criticized for shortening a work day for a dental appointment and for attending a baby shower on a Saturday.

“In addition to being at odds from how she was previously permitted to organize her day, this sudden emphasis on ‘face time’ was not extended to any of her male colleagues,” her lawsuit notes.

Earle claims she went on another medical leave as a result of the toxic work environment and, on Dec. 9, 2022, wrote to the company to formalize her concerns. In that letter, according to the court filings, she included a suggestion that she and the company consider negotiating a severance package, “on account of what felt like to the plaintiff like a concerted attempt by the defendant to end the employment relationship.”

The same day she submitted the letter, she claims she discovered the salary top-up payments promised to her during her medical leave wouldn’t be made, that her email account was suspended and that the company hadn’t filled out her disability paperwork. A courier also came to pick up her company laptop.

She claims she wrote to the board of directors to raise her concerns and received a response that they were taking her concerns seriously, but the board followed up days later to say it had accepted her resignation.

Earle’s lawyers then wrote to the company to say she had not resigned and believed she had been fired.

Skeena acknowledged the claim and in a prepared statement said that it holds the utmost respect for its employees.

“We strongly disagree with the allegations contained in this claim,” the company said. “We are taking this matter very seriously and will be filing a response."