Issue: Many legal claims are born solely out of employees' anger, not a solid legal case.
Risk: One wrong move (especially during the firing process) can send employees running for the courthouse.
Action: Teach supervisors to avoid unnecessarily angering employees by pointing out the following common mistakes.
Rick is an equal-opportunity tough-guy manager. He berates all workers publicly and regularly. One employee, Susan, can't take it anymore. She files a sex discrimination claim, arguing that she's scolded more than male co-workers. She loses, but the lawsuit drags the company through the media mud and cost thousands in legal fees.
Such scenarios play out every day. Employees file legal claims primarily because they're angry, hurt or humiliated, regardless of whether they have a good legal case.
"More than 50 percent of lawsuits are filed out of anger," says Maria Danaher, employment law attorney with Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote in Pittsburgh. "Most of the lawsuits are caused by managers' stupidity, insensitivity or inaction."
In fact, fewer than 10 percent of employees' lawsuits even go to trial. But the cost of defending even a meritless lawsuit can run into the thousands of dollars.
One way to prevent such costs and embarrassment is to teach supervisors to avoid angering employees in the first place. Be aware of these five common mistakes:
1. Not preparing for termination meetings. Supervisors may not know how to respond to a fired employee's questions about how his personnel file will reflect the termination, what retirement benefits he's due or whether the employer will challenge his retirement.
If you can't provide answers, employees will find a lawyer or government agency that can. That's why HR should sit in on any termination meeting.
2. Distance yourself from the firing decision. Supervisors should never say, "The decision wasn't my idea." Such statements are common, lawyers say, and could lead employees to believe that the firing wasn't unanimous and may have been unfair.
3. Fire an employee by surprise. Employees terminated for reasons other than downsizing should be able to see it coming with warnings and counseling. Lay the groundwork with feedback and discipline.
4. Minimize complaints as simple "personality conflicts." Example: An employee complains to his director about an "obnoxious" supervisor. This could be a veiled harassment complaint, but the director just says, "Oh, you know him. He has a mouth. I'll talk to him but there's probably little I can do." The employee may feel a court is the only one who will listen.
5. Bad-talk a departed employee. Word about those comments will get back to the fired employee, possibly triggering legal action from a person who otherwise would have disappeared.