Instruct supervisors: Mum’s the word on discharge

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in Firing,Human Resources

Put on site the week of July 16, 2007 -- not in HR Weekly

Nothing will sink an employer’s case faster than a manager’s careless comment. That’s especially true if the organization has just fired someone considered to be a “troublemaker,” whom everyone was looking for an excuse to let go. Confessing that inconvenient truth is a sure path to liability.

Recent case: Eric Jones worked for the U.S. Postal Service until he was discharged for getting into an argument with his ex-girlfriend, who worked at the same post office. The Postal Service has a strict “hands-off at work” rule, and Jones was accused of instigating an argument that led to a pushing match.

Jones also had a long (and expensive) history of work injuries and claimed he was disabled.

The Postal Service reinstated him while his case went to arbitration, but he sued anyway. He alleged the original firing was discrimination based on his disability. He said firing him for the argument was just a cover for getting rid of a disabled employee.

To bolster his argument, Jones got a statement from a co-worker who had asked a manager why Jones had been fired. And what was the manager’s response? “He couldn’t do the job . . .  this [incident with the ex-girlfriend] gave [us] …  a chance to get rid” of Jones. The court said a jury could consider the statement as evidence that the employer knew it didn’t have a legal reason to fire Jones, but seized on a convenient rationale as soon as one presented itself. And that, said the court, “is the very definition of pretext.” (Jones v. Potter, No. 06-3845, 6th Cir., 2007)

Final note: In the end, the case was tossed out for technical reasons. But the fact remains, a careless statement can sink a case.  

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