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Choose your words carefully when explaining discharge

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in Human Resources

You are no doubt familiar with the saying, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Nowhere does that apply more than in the workplace when you have to discharge someone.

What supervisors say about former employees who have been discharged can easily backfire. Resist the temptation to use termination as an occasion to “set an example” for other employees. Don’t issue a press release explaining why someone was fired.

In most cases, the only person who needs to hear the reasons for a termination is the person who is terminated. In any other setting, your comments about why someone was fired may land you in court, where you will have to defend your statements.

Recent case: Ronald Stodghill was a school superintendent. When his district failed to live up to educational expectations, he came under public criticism. To keep its accreditation, the district had to boost test scores. It did so, rather dramatically. In fact, the scores went up so far, the accreditation body wondered whether they were legitimate.

Stodghill was fired. Then the state Board of Education released a statement that said cheating had occurred during testing, and that Stodghill lost his job because the district failed its accreditation.

Stodghill sued, asking for a hearing to clear his name.

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed his lawsuit, explaining that the board comments didn’t seem to imply that Stodghill had been involved directly in any cheating. If they had said that Stodghill actually participated or ordered the cheating, that might have been a different matter. (Stodghill v. Wellston School District, et al., No. 07-1190, 8th Cir., 2008)

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