Wise HR professionals understand that, before jumping the gun and firing an employee who has filed a complaint, a thorough investigation is in order. While the investigation is under way, it’s often a good strategy to try to cool things down by sending the employee home, either on paid or unpaid leave.
But that’s when many employees hire an attorney, who may try to negotiate a severance package in exchange for a resignation.
If the investigation and negotiations drag on, can you discharge the employee for making what you consider unreasonable demands? Sometimes, the answer is yes. Just run your situation by your attorney before you act.
Recent case: Riad Majali worked for AirTran Airlines as manager of maintenance planning. A dispute arose over whether the airline was unsafely flying planes that were overdue for service—something Majali and others were responsible for tracking. The airline opened an investigation.
Meanwhile, Majali returned late from a vacation and the airline suspended him, pending a decision on appropriate discipline.
Majali then filed his own OSHA complaint, alleging the airline was operating unsafely.
Then he began demanding a generous severance package. Ultimately, the airline decided it wasn’t interested in settling the dispute and fired Majali for, among other reasons, making unreasonable settlement demands.
Majali sued, alleging retaliation for his OSHA and other complaints. But the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed his case, reasoning that firing Majali for making unreasonable demands wasn’t retaliation. The court said it was an unrelated but legitimate reason for termination. (Majali v. AirTran, No. 07-15872, 11th Cir., 2008)
Final note: Be aware that an unpaid suspension can be viewed as retaliation, even if it is for a short period and the employee ends up receiving back pay.