Have you ever flat-out fired an employee without giving a warning or a chance to improve? If employees are at-will workers, you can fire them for any reason or no reason at all, as long as it’s not discriminatory. But, as a new ruling shows, supervisors should resist that quick-trigger urge if that employee recently voiced a discrimination complaint.
Case in Point: Michael Bruno, the director of hospitality for a Mississippi casino, planned to hire a candidate for a buffet manager position. But Bruno’s boss immediately rejected the applicant, saying the candidate was “too old,” and the casino “didn’t need another squatter.”
Bruno argued that it “wasn’t right” to reject the candidate based solely on age. But his boss tossed the application back, shouting “too bad.” Within two weeks, Bruno was fired without warning. He was given only vague reasons, including “substandard” kitchen cleanliness. Despite the fact that the casino had a progressive disciplinary policy, it was ignored in Bruno’s case.
Bruno shot off a retaliation lawsuit under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act and state law. He claimed his firing was in retaliation for opposing his supervisor’s discriminatory hiring decision. The judge allowed the case to proceed to trial. Reason: suspicion based on “the close time proximity” between Bruno’s age discrimination complaint and his termination. (Bruno v. RIH Acquisitions MS 1 LLC dba Bally’s Resorts, N.D. Miss.)
3 Lessons Learned
1. Give real-time feedback and consistent reviews. Short of a crime or on-the-job violence, supervisors should coach employees to improve their performance. Keep a written record of your efforts. Quick-trigger firings can rapidly become retaliation lawsuits if the employees recently opposed illegal conduct.
2. Follow your written disciplinary policy. Because the casino had an established progressive disciplinary policy but failed to follow the process, it contributed to its own credibility problems.
3. Watch your calendars, watches and sundials. Courts look to see the amount of time that passes between when employees exercise their rights under the law and when you whack them.
Mindy Chapman is an attorney and president of Mindy Chapman & Associates LLC. She is a master trainer, keynote speaker and co-author of the ABA book, Case Dismissed! Taking Your Harassment Prevention Training to Trial.