Reprint O&A News 2-27-2011
By Tommy Eden, Attorney
The most common question I am asked is “how do I (fairly and respectfully) fire someone without getting sued, or win the case if I do?” A good employer establishes written workplace rules for conduct, safety, appearance, etc. (Employee Handbook is the best place to give notice) and when those established rules are not followed the employer takes action. First, by disciplining the employee in an effort to bring the person back in compliance with the rules or expectations. Second, by terminating a non-performing employee or one who has engaged in workplace misconduct. Harder than it sounds.
The following is a short checklist an employer may consider before terminating an employee so that you can prove "just cause" before any fact-finder; i.e. grievance panel, EEOC, DOL, UC, Court, Jury, Arbitrator, etc. A “just cause” termination is the highest standard of proof that may be required in an employment case. Meet it and you typically will win before any fact finder. Written proof that you followed each one of these steps is a critical component to ultimately prevailing:
1) Can you prove that the employee had fair notice of the rules or standards of conduct or production standards?
• Have the rules been given to the employee, either orally or in writing? (Updated Employee Handbook with signed acknowledgement preferred; training log is even better)
• Are the rules related to the employer’s legitimate interests, e.g., customer loyalty, productivity, safety, security?
• After learning of the employee’s misconduct, did the employer promptly conduct an investigation? (24-48 hours to get started is best)
• Was the employee notified of the alleged misconduct? In writing?
• Was the employee given a chance to respond to the allegations?
• Did the employer investigate any claims made by the employee?
• Was there substantial evidence, after the investigation, of a rules violation you can identity in the Employee Handbook?
• Did you examine the employee’s personnel file? Including evaluations?
• Have other employees been disciplined for the same or similar violation?
• If so, have they received the same or similar discipline?
• Level of discipline for classes of offenses clearly set forth in Handbook?
• Is the proposed punishment reasonable in light of the violation?
• Will the discipline put the employee back in compliance with the rules (signed discipline receipt by employee is best way to show notice)?
• Will it encourage other employees to follow the rules?
• Should the employee receive a warning and a second chance for a minor violation or is a violation so gross as to require immediate discharge?
• Are there any mitigating circumstances, e.g., good work attendance, seniority, good disciplinary history, remorse by the employee?
• If the rule has not been previously enforced, have your given fair notice that will be in the future, i.e., righting the ship?
• Have you consulted an experienced HR professional or employment attorney before discharging a protected category employee?
Tommy Eden is a Lee County native, an attorney with the local office of Capell & Howard, PC and a member of the ABA Section of Labor and Employment Law and serves on the Board of Directors for the East Alabama SHRM Chapter. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 334-501-1540.