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You don’t need absolute proof to fire

by on
in Firing,Human Resources

Employees are entitled to fair treatment, but that doesn’t mean HR has to become a court of law and prove beyond a reasonable doubt that an employee did something deserving of discharge.

As long as you reasonably believe an employee broke a rule or other­­wise did something deserving of discharge, a termination will stand up to a legal challenge.

Recent case: Lisa worked for a social services agency processing applications for state and federal benefits, such as Medicaid for pregnant women. She also worked part time at a bar.

When Lisa became pregnant, she applied for benefits herself. On her application, she didn’t list the part-time job or any other income sources. When a supervisor who knew she worked the second job reviewed her application, she flagged it. Lisa was then fired for submitting a misleading application.

Lisa—who had earlier requested FMLA leave to care for her other child, who is disabled—sued, alleging retaliation for taking leave.

The agency said it had a legitimate discharge reason. Lisa countered that she had turned in the application before she got the second job and therefore hadn’t disclosed the income.

The court said what mattered wasn’t what was factually true, but whether the employer reasonably suspected that Lisa provided misleading information. Since the employer’s assumption that she hadn’t listed all her income was reasonable under the circumstances, the discharge was legitimate and not punishment for taking FMLA leave. (Reyes v. Texas Health and Human Ser­­vices Com­­mis­­sion, 12-CV-907, WD TX, 2013)

Final note: Judges don’t want to second-guess your disciplinary decisions. They understand that employers aren’t going to hold formal hearings on employee misconduct. As long as the process you use seems reasonable and gives the employee a chance to explain herself, the court won’t interfere.

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