Generally, employers don’t need a reason to terminate an at-will employee. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t carefully document how, why and when you made the decision—even if you don’t plan to share the information with the employee.
Documentation is especially crucial if you are terminating an employee who is returning from.
Recent case: Wayne Grubb worked at an automobile parts manufacturing plant as a front-line supervisor. When an employee cc’d several managers an e-mail critical of Grubb, Grubb told a colleague he was going to teach the employee a lesson.
He then called the employee, put him on speaker phone and told him he didn’t “have to be a d***head” by copying other managers on his message. Thinking he had ended the call, Grubb then told his colleague, who had listened in, that surely the recipient of his tirade would “think twice before doing that again.”
The employee complained to HR, which investigated and concluded Grubb had acted unprofessionally.
The company then scheduled Grubb for termination, but offered him an opportunity to explain himself before being officially dismissed. A distressed Grubb suffered a heart attack and immediately went out onleave.
Twelve weeks later, he returned to work and was fired after he was unable to explain his earlier phone conversation.
Grubb sued, alleging retaliation and interference with FMLA leave.
But the employer had good documentation. The court reviewed it and concluded the company had decided to terminate Grubb for a legitimate reason before he even took FMLA leave. The case was dismissed. (Grubb v. YSK, No. 09-4352, 6th Cir., 2010)
Final note: The employer ended up looking compassionate by delaying the firing and allowing Grubb all 12 weeks of FMLA leave.