This Bad Boss Bonded with a Sales Star Over Mani-Pedis — But Was It All a Veneer?
At first, Jennifer Harris’ boss at FedEx Corporate Services seemed an ally: The two women swapped tales of their families, hung out at team dinners, and even hit the salon together for manicures and pedicures.
But then Michelle Lamb, the new director of FedEx’s “Longhorn” region in southern Texas, suggested that Ms. Harris — a driven sales manager who had broken college records as a relay sprinter — should consider taking a voluntary demotion because she wasn’t an adequate leader, according to a lawsuit.
As a top performer who had recently helped her boss to win a sales award, Ms. Harris felt “blindsided” by Ms. Lamb, she testified at trial. The only notable difference between her and her peers, as far as she could see, was her skin color: She was the only Black sales manager on the team. Ms. Lamb is white.
Ms. Harris declined to step down and instead asked FedEx to investigate possible bias. Not long after, she started getting discipline from Ms. Lamb — the first-ever demerits of her career, according to testimony.
After raising more concerns, this time about possible retaliation, Ms. Harris was put on a performance improvement plan (PIP) that required her to outperform some white peers who weren’t on PIPs themselves.
Finally, a month after Ms. Harris filed a third internal complaint, her former manicure buddy fired her.
Michelle Lamb is our latest Bad Boss of the Month.
Ms. Harris filed suit against FedEx in federal court, claiming race discrimination and retaliation. In October 2022, after a week-long trial, a jury in Houston found FedEx liable for retaliation and awarded her a whopping $366 million — an amount that may have been the largest-ever such award. FedEx appealed the outcome in February 2023.
By the time Ms. Harris was fired, she had been working for FedEx’s corporate sales organization for more than 12 years. According to testimony at trial, her early days at the company in Irving, Tex., in her second real job out of college, were life-changing.
Both of her parents were educators, Ms. Harris said, so she didn’t have much experience in the corporate world. Two mentors at FedEx took her in hand, teaching her how to remake her image so that she could advance more easily — dressing more sedately, toning down her “rather loud” persona.
“These two ladies saw potential in me, and had the courage to pull me to the side,” she told jurors. “They helped me identify that if I wanted to be able to grow with the company, I have to actually present myself as such — even the simplest things, [like] getting a watch, pearls … Just kind of restructuring.”
Before long Ms. Harris was thriving. At trial, a former co-worker called her “an immensely hard worker” who was so dedicated to FedEx — and even to its favored causes, such as Habitat for Humanity — that she “bled purple,” the shipping giant’s signature color.
Over her tenure, according to testimony, Ms. Harris was promoted six times and was named twice to the President’s Club, an honor reserved for stellar performers who then get to mingle with top execs on a luxury trip. Many FedEx salespeople go their entire careers without even one such award, jurors heard.
Along the way, Ms. Harris was selected for a FedEx leadership program and became a manager. In mid-2017, she was chosen to lead a $60 million district based in Houston, just as Ms. Lamb was tapped to head the parent region. Both women worked in the same building, on the same floor — and Ms. Harris believed she found had a new mentor and role model.
“I was excited to [be] able to learn from someone who was recently promoted into the director role, which I aspired to be,” she told jurors.
The early days were good; this was when they went for manicures together. Ms. Harris’ team initially exceeded their goals, along with several other teams, and helped Ms. Lamb to earn a coveted President’s Club honor.
In fiscal 2019, however, performance was rough across the entire company. Under pressure, the women’s relationship started to fray. Ms. Harris asked for weekly coaching meetings, hoping to tap into her boss’s experience, but was frustrated by a lack of concrete advice, she testified.
Then, in March 2019, came Ms. Lamb’s unexpected suggestion that Ms. Harris should think about dropping her management role, purportedly because of failings as a team coach — and also because her “passion for engaging with customers” might make her happier in a low-ranking role. All of a sudden, Ms. Harris testified, she reevaluated their past interactions and saw patterns she didn’t like, especially in comparison to Ms. Lamb’s treatment of white managers.
Ms. Harris testified, for instance, that Ms. Lamb had previously accused her of not participating in company incentive programs as other managers did — but cited data from before Ms. Harris was even in her position. Ms. Lamb also set unfair hurdles for Ms. Harris’ group by removing a big customer from the district without adjusting sales goals, she said.
Besides, Ms. Harris told jurors, her subordinates gave her high scores as a manager and coach in FedEx’s official surveys. “Statistics demonstrated that I was good at that job,” she testified.
“You’re supposed to be developed by your leader,” Ms. Harris said in court. “That was my goal [in] asking for additional one-on-ones. What I didn’t want is to be harassed in those meetings … There was never any leadership on Michelle Lamb’s part. It was always a beat-down. … All of those things where it’s clear that data demonstrates I am not the lowest, but … she’s belittling me, comparing me to my white peers.”
At trial, Ms. Lamb denied that she had ever treated Ms. Harris differently based on her race.
“It’s disgusting to be referred to as a racist,” she told jurors. “I am not a racist, nor do I associate with people who are.”
FedEx investigated Ms. Harris’ claims of discrimination and didn’t take any action against Ms. Lamb. Likewise at trial, the jury didn’t find enough evidence to prove discrimination.
What happened next, however, would ultimately lead to the nine-figure verdict.
Shortly after the discrimination investigation closed, and barely a year after Ms. Harris’ second President’s Award, Ms. Lamb hit her with a letter of counseling for “unacceptable performance” and a PIP, according to testimony.
Ms. Harris and her team weren’t meeting some goals, according to documents shown in court, but they also were performing better than some other teams under Ms. Lamb — and anyhow, high performers often lagged after an exceptional year, jurors heard.
Asked to explain at trial why Ms. Harris was singled out when several white peers had similar or worse team records, Ms. Lamb cited “leadership deficiencies.” Among the examples she discussed: When excluded by Ms. Lamb from a FedEx training program to “cut costs,” Ms. Harris had paid her own way to attend the session on a vacation day.
“Why aren’t you praising her for that?” asked Ms. Harris’ attorney. Ms. Lamb replied that she was “disappointed that [Ms. Harris] didn’t follow instructions.”
“You have to be capable of leading a team,” she testified, “and you have to be capable of being led. … Jennifer just lacked that ability.”
There were other disputes: Whether Ms. Lamb had reduced the revenue available to Ms. Harris by removing a member from her team; whether Ms. Lamb had shunted a big potential customer away from Ms. Harris. Amid this discord, the former sales star filed another internal complaint, alleging that Ms. Lamb was punishing her for the original discrimination claim.
Just days after the second FedEx probe ended — again to no effect — Ms. Lamb issued a letter of warning to Ms. Harris and put her on another PIP, according to testimony. The new plan required Ms. Harris to deliver a performance equal to the average of her peers, which meant outperforming some district managers who weren’t on PIPs themselves.
The conflict took a toll on Ms. Harris. According to testimony, the former athlete gained weight, developed anxiety, and had trouble sleeping due to “continuous dry heaving” that required medication and a procedure to address a developing hernia.
She filed a final internal complaint in December 2019 and was fired by Ms. Lamb the following month, ending an almost-13-year career at FedEx. Based on documents shown in court, her performance had exceeded several of her peers through much of the contested period.
“I never thought I would ever not work for FedEx,” Ms. Harris told the jury, describing her trauma upon leaving. Even today, she testified, she needs to look away whenever she sees a FedEx truck.
At trial, Ms. Harris’ pastor described her as “emotionally destroyed” by the firing. He saw her break down in tears several times, he said, and described holding her as she sobbed publicly at a birthday celebration in a restaurant.
“I am still worried about her mental state,” he testified.
A unanimous jury found that FedEx retaliated against Ms. Harris because of her claims of discrimination, and that the company didn’t treat her internal complaints in good faith. They awarded her more than $1 million for past and future emotional damage — and because they found FedEx’s behavior in the case to be “reprehensible,” they added a huge $365 million in punitive damages.
The number may have been inspired by Ms. Harris’ attorney, who suggested during his closing argument that punitive damages should send a message based on the overall value of FedEx Corporate Services: The jury awarded Ms. Harris about half the worth of the FedEx unit.
Ms. Lamb still works for FedEx, meanwhile, having been moved into a new position with “a larger [revenue] responsibility” than when she managed Ms. Harris, she testified.
The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Harris v. FedEx Corporate Services, Inc. We select “Bad Boss” cases to illustrate the continuing relevance of employee protection laws for our newsletter’s audience, which includes attorneys and former TELG clients.
Ms. Harris was represented by The Sanford Firm in Dallas.