Don’t change termination reason after the fact

Before you officially terminate an employee, make sure you have nailed down the reasons. That’s the official word—even if your decision is challenged.

Here’s why: A court may see new or additional reasons as evidence that the first reasons were just excuses.

Recent case: Thrisha Roberson worked as a technician in a mobile digital imaging van. She drove to various retirement communities across North Carolina to take X-rays. She worked four 12-hour shifts each week.

When assignments increased, she began refusing some calls, especially if they came at the end of her day. Then, while working on Christmas, she refused to go to the second call of the day, telling the dispatcher she wanted to go home and spend time with her family. At the time, Roberson’s employer noted none of those incidents in her personnel file.

Then she hurt her shoulder while loading the X-ray machine into the van after finishing an assignment. She had to take several days off and then filed a workers’ compensation claim. Shortly after, she was fired. Among the listed reasons: missing work on specific days and refusing to continue working on Christmas.

Roberson disputed the reasons for her discharge and then sued, alleging retaliation for filing the workers’ compensation claim.

The company then came up with a new list of reasons, including incidents that occurred after she was injured.

The court said the contradictory reasons could be used as evidence that all the reasons were just pretext to terminate her. It ordered a trial. A jury will now decide whether the company fired her for poor performance or fired her because she filed a workers’ comp claim. (Roberson v. Smith, et al., No. 5:07-CV-284, ED NC, 2011)