Worker refuses to follow directions? OK to fire

Employees don’t have the right to decide which directions they must follow. Unless there are clearly extenuating reasons (safety concerns, for example), you can and should discipline workers who refuse to cooperate.

Recent case: Peter, who is white, worked as a police officer and had a good performance history. Then a new police chief arrived in town from Philadelphia. He was black and brought with him a female officer who was also black.

That officer was quickly promoted to a job Peter wanted. She had been ranked higher than Peter on the pro­­motion list, and he demanded to see her test scores. The department refused.

It became clear that Peter and the new chief were not getting along. Peter frequently criticized the female officer, including at staff meetings. He even publicly called for her demotion. The police chief admonished Peter that it was none of his business how she was doing her job. Eventually, the female officer was, in fact, demoted.

But around the same time, the department placed Peter on a performance improvement plan, instructed him to get mental health counseling—and directed him to follow orders. At Peter’s counseling session, he learned he had to undergo a drug-screening test, which was to be conducted immediately at police headquarters. He refused to go and was fired for insubordination.

Peter sued, alleging discrimination and interference with his First Amendment rights.

The court dismissed his case. First, it concluded that his demand for the other officer’s demotion wasn’t covered free speech, but merely disruptive behavior. It also reasoned that Peter refused to ­follow orders and violated his performance improvement plan by doing so. That was good enough reason to fire him. (Paske v. Fitz­­ger­­ald, No. 12-2915, SD TX, 2014)