Issue: Firing someone who threatens a co-worker may be worth the risk of being sued for wrongful discharge.
Risk: Wrongful-discharge claims versus serious injury or even death: Which would be more devastating?
Action: Make sure your discipline policy allows you to fire someone immediately for serious misconduct.
Don't let fear of a lawsuit keep you from protecting your organization's employees from threats of violence. Firing someone for threatening behavior isn't discriminatory if you take the same action against any potentially dangerous person. In fact, when a co-worker seriously frightens employees, failing to act will land you in more trouble.
Make sure yourpolicy also states that you can and will immediately fire someone for serious misconduct.
Example case: The Illinois State Toll Highway Authority settled Robert Merheb's discrimination charge by giving him a new job. The agreement also stated that if Merheb committed any infraction, he would be subject to the toll authority's progressive discipline policy.
The policy called for an oral reprimand for minor incidents, then a written reprimand, a suspension without pay and, finally, discharge "when other corrective measures have failed or if the gravity of the offense warrants it."
Merheb clashed with his new supervisor and six months into the job, criticism from her one day spurred Merheb to lash out, screaming and threatening the supervisor.
The next workday, Merheb's supervisor met with the HR officer and in-house counsel, then fired Merheb for "gross in-subordination, disrespectful conduct [and] threatening behavior."
Merheb sued, claiming breach of contract. He argued that the toll authority didn't follow its progressive discipline policy, which called for only an oral warning on first offense. The court threw out the case because, under Merheb's reasoning, even if he had killed his supervisor, it would draw only an oral reprimand as a first offense. (Merheb v. Illinois State Toll Highway Authority, No. 00-2547, 7th Cir., 2001)
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