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Warn bosses: One wisecrack can mean trouble

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in Employment Law,Firing,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training

When supervisors and managers have to deal with an employee they perceive as trouble, emotions can take over. That’s bad news.

Warn them that anytime they have to deliver bad news to an employee—for example, while disciplining or firing—they must refrain from making smart-aleck comments. Wisecracks are too easy to misinterpret, especially if the employee already thinks the employer is out to get him.

Recent case: Vince Saitta, a Sicilian-American, worked as a salesman for a Honda dealership until he was fired for allegedly stealing loose change from a customer’s car.

The incident that led to his termination began one day when Saitta was asked to take care of a trade-in. Saitta parked the car and proceeded to clean it out. In the process, he took about 70 cents from the center console and put it in his pocket. When he went back inside, he returned the coins to the customer.

In the meantime, however, a supervisor had seen Saitta pocket the money and asked him whether he had taken something that didn’t belong to him.

Later that day, Saitta wrote a note to management, complaining about what he claimed was long-standing harassment based on his Sicilian heritage. He threatened to sue and noted that he knew the law didn’t allow retaliation for complaints.

Even though Saitta had returned the change to the customer, the dealership decided to terminate him for theft. A supervisor delivered the news along with the statement, “If you’re going to shoot the king, you better kill the king.”

Saitta sued, alleging retaliation and citing the statement as direct proof of the company’s intention to retaliate for his complaint.

The court said a jury should determine whether retaliation occurred. (Saitta v. Melody Rae Motors, No. 08-C-5018, ND IL, 2009)

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