Saturday, January 20, 2007
Disciplining Employees: What are Some Common Mistakes?
We’re speaking with attorney Lisa Guerin, an expert on employment law issues and co-author of the Progressive Discipline Handbook (Nolo).
NOLO: Lisa, Let’s say you “inherit” an employee—for example, from another department—and you discover a discipline problem. You start talking to the employee’s old manager, and find out that the employee’s had the same problem before, but the former manager didn’t do anything about it. If you do decide to discipline the employee, can you discipline for the older incidents, as well?
LISA GUERIN: It’s really not a good idea to discipline for those older incidents, but the reason isn’t really legal, it's more practical. The whole point of progressive discipline is to give employee an opportunity to improve, to tell them what the problem is, and then work out an improvement plan. And you haven't really given this employee the opportunity to know what the problem is, for example, to talk it over with the manager and to try and come up with some way to improve.
NOLO: Lisa, in the book, you talk about “overdocumenting” employee discipline. How is that possible? Shouldn’t you write down everything that happens?
LISA GUERIN: Well, you should write down enough that you'll be able to remember later what happened and that anyone else who's reading your documentation can figure out pretty easily what happened. What you don’t want to do is to nitpick and micromanage. You know, from a practical level, if your employee feels that you’re always looking over their shoulder and marking down everything that they do wrong, they’re going to feel anxious and it’s going to be difficult for them to really improve and feel supported. And on the legal side, if you ever have to use your documentation for example in a courtroom, a jury who sees that kind of your documentation is going to smell a setup. It’s going to look like you were trying to write down everything that the employee was doing wrong so that you would later have an excuse to fire that person. And that's why it's best to, of course, document, and document thoroughly, but just don't go overboard.
NOLO: Lots of employees have attendance problems. Let’s say you have an employee who’s always calling in to say she won’t be in. You tell her that she has to call within the first half hour of when her shift starts. If she doesn’t call you, but it turns out she’s allowed to have the day off because her leave is legally protected—let’s say she has jury duty that day—can you discipline her?
LISA GUERIN: That’s a really great question and the answer actually has two parts. You can’t discipline her for taking the time off. Employees are entitled to take time off for a variety of reasons and jury duty is one of them. An employee can take time off for family and medical leave, or, in a lot of states, an employee can take time off to vote, if they wouldn't otherwise have time. But you can require employees who are taking time off for these reasons that they know about in advance, to follow your regular policies about checking in with a supervisor, or in this example, giving notice. So you could discipline the employee for not following your rules particularly because she must have known that she was going to have to go to jury duty that day.
NOLO: When disciplining employees you advise people not to make promises about the future. What happens if you do? And if you already have made promises, what can you do to undo those promises?
LISA GUERIN: The reason why you shouldn't make promises about the future is that you might have to keep them and you’re really not in a position, right now, to know what's going to happen. For example, if you promise an employee, ‘You know, as long as you can get those numbers up, we’re going to promote you to be a manager,’ and then let's say your company has to have layoffs and the employee is targeted or you have a great candidate, come up that you want to hire for that manager's position. The employee is going to be left wondering why you didn't keep your promise. And in a worst-case scenario that promise could turn into a contract with the employee.
The way it works ordinarily in this country, is that most employees are employed at will. What that means is that they can quit at any time for any reason. And they can also be fired at any time for any reason as long as your reason is not illegal, for example you're not discriminating.
But when you make a promise to an employee, you might potentially undue that at-will right and that means, rather than being able to fire the employee for any reason, you now have to keep your promise that's become a contract. So the employee, in the example that I gave, might be entitled to that managerial position if he or she can get those numbers up and that might not be what your company wants to do when the time comes.
NOLO: If you’re in a situation where you’re about to discipline an employee, and the employee gives you information that makes you think he or she might have a disability, what are the legal implications of going ahead with the discipline?
LISA GUERIN: An employee who has a disability is entitled to a reasonable accommodation and what that means is that your company might have to make changes to the job or the way the job is performed or the equipment the employee uses in order to enable the employee to do the job.
Examples of a reasonable accommodation might be making the workplace wheelchair accessible, for example, or using voice recognition software for an employee who is unable to keystroke or is blind. So if an employee tells you that he or she has a disability, then you have an obligation to start a conversation with that employee about what reasonable accommodations might be possible.
You don’t have that responsibility before you know that the employee has a disability, however. If you’re going to discipline an employee and the employee then says that he or she has a disability, technically you might have the legal right to still discipline the employee and then start your reasonable accommodation conversation.
But, really the best practice is to try and accommodate and set the discipline aside. It's not really fair to discipline someone for something that they can't really help. You know if your employee, for example, has depression and the employee has had a tardiness problem, a problem coming in the morning. And you're going to sit down and discipline that employee and the employee says, “Boy, I’m really sorry that I've been late so much, but I'm taking some medication for my depression and it makes me really groggy first thing in the morning and I've had a lot of trouble getting going.”
Rather than disciplining that employee for coming in late you might want to instead start talking about reasonable accommodations, for example, can you change the employee’s schedule so that he or she comes in later and then works later in the evening and that way you’re really giving the employee a fair shot to perform the job's requirements.
NOLO: Sometimes you hear about situations where managers get sued by employees for things that happen at work. In what kinds of situations are managers going to be personally liable to employees?
LISA GUERIN: There are a couple of ways that that might come up. First of all certain employment laws make managers and supervisors liable if they break the law and probably the one that people have heard of the most is the Family Medical Leave Act and that defines the term employer so broadly that managers can actually be sued for violating that law. So, that's one way.
Another way is if the employee sues for personal-injury. And in the workplace for example the personal injury that might come up is defamation, where typically a former employee says, ‘My manager gave me a bad reference and I'm not getting any new jobs and the manager’s lying about me and bad mouthing me.’ Then the employee can go back and actually sue the manager personally for damages.
NOLO: Why might an employee sue a manager?
LISA GUERIN: There are a few reasons why that might happen. I think often why it happens is that the manager is the person who has been involved with the employee and who has disciplined the employee, who has that personal relationship. And so often the manager is the person that the employee is really angry at. They’re the face of the company when a negative job action happens, when an employee gets fired or disciplined for example.
Another reason why an employee’s lawyer might choose to sue a manager is to put some pressure on the company to settle. They know it's a very unpleasant thing to have the manager in the hot seat and that might add a little bit of leverage there.
And finally, suing a manager personally for technical, legal reasons allows the employee to keep a lawsuit in state court rather than having to go to federal court. And in many states the state court is considered much friendlier to employees so the employee would want to stay in state court if at all possible. And naming an individual manager as well as the company helps the employee do that.
NOLO: When an employee sues the manager, what does that mean in terms of what a manager has to do.?
LISA GUERIN: When an employee sues a manager personally, that means the manager is a defendant in a lawsuit. So from a practical standpoint the first thing the manager should do is get a lawyer. Often, the company will supply a lawyer for the manager, but it also means that the manager is going to have to participate in discovery, which means being deposed, having to testify under oath having to produce documents. They’re going to have to spend a lot of time working with their lawyer to help prepare a defense. Ultimately, they will have to appear in a courtroom and if the company loses the case and the manager loses the case, the employee will have a judgment for damages against the manager and those can really add up in employment lawsuits.
NOLO: Probably the worst part of any manager's job is firing someone one. What are the employer’s legal obligations?
LISA GUERIN: There are certainly a lot of legal issues that come up when you’re firing someone. For example, most importantly, you can't fire someone for an illegal reason, because you're discriminating against them for example, or retaliating against them for exercising their legal rights. And you may also have legal obligations to an employee who was fired, for example, to give them a final paycheck by a certain date, or to offer to continue their health insurance and things like that.
There aren’t any legal requirements in terms of what you have to say. You don't have to use magic words when you’re firing someone. But what you say certainly is important. Studies show that the way employees are treated, particularly when they're fired, is the main thing that determines whether they're going to sue. An employee who feels that the person who fired them was disrespectful or unkind is much more likely to land in a lawyer's office.
So you need to remember when you’re firing someone that even though it's quite unpleasant for you, it's of course much more unpleasant for the employee. That person is losing a job. They are losing their paycheck. They may be heading for financially tough times. They may be headed for emotional issues or family problems. It can really tear you up to lose a job. You need to keep that in mind when you’re firing someone.
So I think the most important thing to do when you're getting ready to fire someone is to make sure you're prepared, to make sure you have good reason to fire them and you know you have your facts straight. And you should think a little bit about what you’re going to say. You have to tell the employee, obviously, that you are firing them. We recommend that you say, ‘Your employment was terminated.’
I think when you are firing someone, the best rule of thumb is to keep it short. You want to tell the employee, what you are there for – in other words, that their employment is terminated—and then you want to move the conversation fairly quickly to what’s going to happen next, talking about practical issues like getting back company property continuing their health insurance benefits, and so forth.
You want to try and not get drawn into an argument about why the employee is being fired. Really there's no point going there at this point. If you've done your homework, you know you're going to fire the employee. So, it’s best is to cut off that kind of conversation and say, ‘I'm sorry you feel that way, but my decision is final,’ and then move fairly quickly into the practical issues.
NOLO: Lisa, thanks much for talking with us today.