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Employee firings are not always cut and dry, even when the employee has acted outrageously and there appears to be clear grounds for termination. But employers that make and follow smart policies can often withstand a wrongful termination suit.
The Society for Human Resource Management’s HR Magazine shares five cases in which employees who were fired filed wrongful termination lawsuits, and it offers advice to other companies to avoid a similar fate.
#1: Mechanic Mayhem
A group of male mechanics created a practice involving touching a highly sensitive part of a colleague’s anatomy. When one of the mechanics was laid off, he filed a claim of sexual harassment and retaliation. The company’s investigation did not support the mechanic’s claim. But the supervisor engaged in the practice himself, and the company had no documentation of the mechanic’s weak performance.
Lessons learned: Don’t assume that because no one has complained, you’re safe from a harassment claim. A weak harassment claim can nevertheless give rise to a strong retaliation claim. When firing employees, there’s nothing like procedural due process, documentation and consistency.
#2: Shameless Sheila
Tardiness and anger problems made Sheila, a restaurant waitress, a challenge for management. She was eventually fired for her tardiness and an indecent act in which she undressed in front of customers. Yet, she took her case to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and claimed she had been subjected to unwelcome sexual conduct. During the EEOC’s investigation, it found other restaurant workers who were victims of sexual harassment. The restaurant ended up settling with Sheila and other lawsuit members.
Lessons learned: As with the employer in Case #1, restaurant management mistakenly assumed that no internal complaint meant no problem. Workplace sexual behavior, even without a documented complaint, creates a breeding ground for harassment and retaliation claims.
#3: Finding the Right Consistency
Two loud employees at a telemarketing company were constantly trying to outtalk one another. One day frustration boiled over, and they engaged in a heated verbal exchange. The company reprimanded the white employee and fired the black employee, the one who turned the topic into violence. The black employee took his case to the EEOC. But the case didn’t go forward because the company had a policy stating that threats of violence subjected offenders to termination on the first offense.
Lessons learned: Fear of race discrimination might have caused this employer to treat both employees the same—that is, to fire both or keep both. However, in this case “consistency” would have gone against company policy and practice.
#4: The Imploding Severance Package
A CEO had burned so many bridges that everyone wanted him fired. But as part of his employment agreement, he would receive a severance package of $800,000 if fired without cause. While the CEO was on vacation, the company found an email exchange between the CEO and a vendor, in which they discussed the “bedability” of the company’s female employees. When the CEO returned from vacation, the company handed him a termination notice. The company ultimately agreed to forgive a small loan it granted him in exchange for a release of all claims.
Lessons learned: When contemplating a termination—particularly a high-stakes one—you must prepare thoroughly, analyze all information and generally get your ducks in a row. Also, keep your policies up-to-date and legally compliant.
#5: An Affair to Remember
A former employee sued her boss claiming she had been fired for refusing sexual advances. While the manager was hesitant to admit a sexual relationship with the employee, he was adamant that the relationship was always consensual. When probed for evidence that indicated as much, the client produced a photo he had taken of her naked. The plaintiff ended up settling for a small portion of her small $2.5 million demand.
Lessons learned: When it comes to claims, nothing beats a thorough investigation—whether you’re an employment attorney or an HR professional looking to an employee’s complaint.
SHRM’s HR Magazine has the largest circulation among human resource magazines in the country with over 270,000 readers.
Media: If used, please credit SHRM’s HR Magazine. For more information, contact Vanessa Gray at 703-6072 and Vanessa.Gray@shrm.org or Kate Kennedy of SHRM Media Relations at 703-535-6260.
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