How Not to Fire High Profile Employees

By Lauren E.M. Russell

The more technological of our readers may be aware of a brouhaha involving a website named Reddit.  Reddit is best known, among the general population, for conducting structured question-and-answer sessions called Ask Me Anything (AMA), in which subjects respond to questions posted by Reddit users. The subjects of an AMA may range from the mundane (a trash man) to extremely high profile politicians, including President Obama. One Reddit employee, Victoria Taylor, was largely responsible for organizing and facilitating AMAs. Continue reading

An HR Lesson from the Presidential Debate

I never discuss politics. Never. I don’t have the stomach for it, to be honest, and I avoid the subject like the plague. That said, I did manage to watch part of the Presidential Debate on Tuesday night. There are ample pundits who surely have more insightful (i.e., political) commentary than what I can offer. So I’ll gladly leave the politics to others and stick with what I know–employment law. Here’s one HR-related lesson that I took away from the debate.

One of the hottest topics of post- debate discussion was Mitt Romney’s comment about “binders full of women.” I’ll admit–when I heard him say that, I cringed. It just sounded so wrong.

But I’ll admit that I cringed for another reason. I assume Mr. Romney did not actually plan to say that he’d looked at “binders full of women.” Surely he meant to say that he’d reviewed binders full of resumes of female candidates. But, alas, those were not the words that he said. And now he’s stuck with the ones he did say.

And that’s the lesson for HR professionals. Be careful with your words–they’re hard to get rid of once they’ve been said and even more difficult to escape once they’ve been committed to paper.

I used to teach a seminar called, “Help Me Help You.” The theme of the seminar was effective documentation for supervisors and HR professionals. My slide deck consisted of real-life examples of documentation “done wrong.” One slide, for example, showed an excerpt of hand-written notes taken by a supervisor who later became the alleged wrongdoer in an age-discrimination case. He’d taken the notes during a pitch presentation by an outside vendor and had written, “would be good work for young project managers.”

What he meant, he explained at his deposition, was that the work offered good opportunities for junior project managers–not necessarily young ones. I have no doubt that his explanation was an honest one. But that didn’t make it any less uncomfortable when asked about it by the EEOC attorney who was deposing him.

There are more stories like this than I can possibly recount–although someday I may try if I ever getting around to writing my memoir of life as an employment lawyer. The point, though, is this: Words are cheap. Their consequences can be very, very costly. So choose wisely.

Employee’s Tookus Antics Costs Him $2m

Jason Selch worked as an investment analyst for his employer for 10 years. The company went through multiple mergers and acquisitions and eventually was bought by a Bank of America subsidiary. After the BoA merger, Selch learned that his friend and co-worker had been terminated after declining to accept a pay cut.  

Presumably in protest of his friend’s exit, Selch marched into a conference room where the COO and CIO were meeting.  He asked the executives if he was subject to a non-compete agreement.  When the CIO answered that he was not, Selch promptly dropped his drawers and mooned the two executives.

The two execs, to their credit, weren’t flustered by the demonstration and simply returned to their discussion and went on with the meeting. Later, at the COO’s instruction, HR issued Selch a final written warning, which stated that any subsequent violation would result in his termination.  

When the CEO learned of Selch’s flagrant “display” of insubordination, however, he insisted that Selch be terminated.  As a result of being terminated for cause, Selch had to foreit contingency payments of approximately $2 million, which would have vested in a few months. 

Not surprisingly, Selch sued his former employer, claiming that he was entitled to the contingency payments because, in part, the written warning was a contract, which constituted a promise that he would not be fired unless he engaged in a subsequent policy violation. 

The court granted summary judgment to his employer and the decision was upheld on appeal.  In short, the court held that the warning was not a 
“promise” such that an enforceable contract was created. 

What are the employer take-aways from this case?

Well, first, kudos to the executives who, remarkably, managed not to lose their cool after such a visual assault.  Let us all be inspired by their ability to stay focused on the task at hand.

Second, today is my birthday and I find this story more than mildly entertaining. Because it is my birthday, I will take the liberty to be a bit more candid in disclosing my opinion here–what an idiot. Shame on Selch for acting like an immature middle-school kid. The good guys won this battle and I am glad for that. 

Via NY Daily News

Reasons to Terminate: More Is Not Merrier

When terminating an employee, employers need only one reason. Of course, there is rarely just a single reason for reaching the decision. But the existence of multiple reasons does not mandate that each reason be shared with the employee.  In other words, when an employer makes the decision to terminate, there should be only one reason upon which the employer relies and which is shared with the employee-the “final straw.” When an employer changes its “final straw,” it raises doubts both with the employee and with the court and changing reasons are evidence of unlawful discrimination. 

In Smizer v. Community Mennonite Early Learning Center, the employer told the employee that he was being fired due to a Facebook posting he’d made. But the employee didn’t buy it.  He claimed that he really was fired because of his “tardiness and lack of cleanliness in his classroom.”  He claimed that similarly situated female employees, who also were tardy and who kept equally messy classrooms, had not been fired.

If this claim were true, and there were late and messy female employees who had not been fired and the plaintiff was really fired for these reasons, it would support the plaintiff’s Title VII claim.  So the plaintiff sought the court to compel his former employer to produce documents he claimed would show these failings of his female counterparts.

The employer responded that evidence relating to tardiness and messiness were not relevant to the suit because, as you may recall, it fired the plaintiff due to a “troubling” comment he’d made about coworkers on his Facebook page. Thus, the employer contended, the evidence that the plaintiff sought was irrelevant to his claim.

The court disagreed.  In its opinion, it stated that the plaintiff had provided “ample documentation” tending to show that the Facebook posting may not have been the real reason for his termination.  Instead, the documentation apparently showed that the employer had claimed at various other times that there were other reasons for terminating Smizer-including his tardiness and lack of cleanliness.  In employment-discrimination claims, “a shifting justification for an employment action can itself be circumstantial evidence of an unlawful motive.”  Because evidence of “shifting justifications” may be admissible at trial, the requested documents were discoverable and ordered the employer to produce them. 

So what’s the big lesson employers can learn from this story?  In short, pick a reason and stick to it.  One reason to terminate an employee is all you need-and all you should have.  Certainly, there may be (and usually is) a long history of performance issues with the employee.  And all of these would be relevant to the employer’s decision to proceed to termination. But the “final straw” is not a “bail of hay.”  Pick a reason, stick with it, and don’t muck it up by giving multiple reasons for the decision at the termination meeting or in a termination letter.  If you’ve done what you’re supposed to do, you’ve addressed the other issues as they came up with the employee and he’s aware of those issues. 

Smizer v. Community Mennonite Early Learning Ctr., No. 10 C 4304, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 102212 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 7, 2011).

See also:

Bad Reason #29 to Fire an Employee

Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Brilliant: One Employee’s Tale

3d Cir.: No Protection for an Employee Who Lies

Employers’ Cash-for-Clunkers Program: When to Pay Severance to Terminated Employees

It happens everyday. Employees are let go for poor performance or lack of work. After the decision to terminate has been made, employers must consider whether to offer the employee additional pay or benefits in exchange for a release by the employee of all claims he or she may have against the employer.

A separation and release agreement is simply the contract used to document the understandings reached by the parties. In addition to the severance payment and release, the employer might agree to provide a neutral reference or outplacement services for the employee. The agreement might also contain an agreement by the employee avoid working for a competitor for a period of time.image

When should an employer consider a separation and release agreement? The following situations are typical:

· A termination in which the employee has already asserted a claim against the employer;

· A termination in which the employer is concerned that the employer will likely assert a claim;

· A termination in which the employer is willing to provide extra pay or benefits above what the employer would normally be entitled in exchange for a waiver of claims.

Although a waiver of claims is very desirable, employers should consider the possible consequences of asking for such a waiver, particularly if the severance payment is going to be small. By asking for the waiver, the employer may suggest to the employee – for the first time — that he or she actually has a claim.

See also:

Top 10 Layoff Tips
Best Practices When Considering a Severance Agreement

Employment Seminar Update: Layoffs and Reduction in Force Slides

Our annual employment law seminar, held last month, was a tremendous success.  As promised,  3d man providing informaitonwe posted the first of the presentation slides (COBRA and the Economic Stimulus Package), last     week.  Today, we are happy to deliver the slides from Scott Holt and Maribeth Minella’s “Layoffs and  Reduction in Force” presentation.  

Mark your calendars–our next seminar will be held on June 5, 2009, as part of our Breakfast Briefing series.  Look for more information this week on the topic and registration.  In the meantime, don’t hesitate to let us know if there are topics in particular that are on your radar these days.

For more information on terminations and layoffs,  please see our prior posts, Top Ten Layoff Tips, and Bad Reason #29 to Fire an Employee.

An Unusual Alternative to Layoffs: Vote-Offs

What if your employer announced cut-backs but, instead of announcing who would be subject to layoffs, you were giving the task of making the choice.  How easily could you select which of your coworkers you would “vote off of the island”?   Talk about peer pressure. Talk about cubicle wars!

Would you vote for the employee who never carries his weight?  Or would you invoke the Survivor strategy of voting off the strongest competitors–even though it means you’d run the risk that you’d have to do more or that the business would suffer in the absence of its key performers?  image

Thanks to a  new reality show, viewers can live this decision process vicariously.  In each episode of “Someone’s Gotta Go’,” workers at a struggling business will choose who should get a salary cut or raise and who should be fired based on information about pay and past performance.

Maybe you’d better smile at the coworker in the neighboring cubicle a little more often these days.

Delaware employers can learn more about other, more humane, alternatives to layoffs at our annual Employment Law Seminar on April 29.  (Learn more about the employment-law seminar here and register for the seminar here).