Train managers: Don’t tell customers why employee was fired

Some things are better left unsaid. That’s especially true when it comes to telling customers and others outside the company why someone was fired—especially if the reason involves dishonesty. Spilling the beans can lead to a slander lawsuit, which can cost your organization time and money even if you ultimately win.

Recent case: Raymond Hearne worked for UPS for more than 30 years. His truck route included the campus of North Carolina State University. By all accounts, he was well liked and respected by the students, faculty and staff to whom he delivered packages.

The trouble began when an internal audit suggested that Hearne might have been scanning packages more than once in order to inflate his pay. UPS pays drivers the higher of their actual hours worked or the expected time it should take to deliver the packages in their trucks. The expected time was calculated based on the number of daily scans, so scanning packages more than once inflated the expected time. By management estimates, Hearne may have earned as much as an extra $14,000 per year by scanning the same packages multiple times.

When UPS fired Hearne for “dishonesty,” he sued. Among Hearne’s allegations was the claim that UPS had told members of the NC State community that he had been fired for dishonesty.

Hearne claimed he hadn’t intentionally scanned the packages to gain more pay, but simply had been following his supervisor’s directive to make sure every package was scanned. In other words, he claimed he had aggressively scanned every package in sight to make sure he didn’t miss any. If his actions were an honest mistake, he reasoned, then it was slander for UPS to tell the community he was fired for dishonesty.

The court dismissed his case on a technicality because his lawyer didn’t authenticate the 74 pages of letters community members wrote on Hearne’s behalf after learning he had been fired for dishonesty. Had the attorney succeeded in getting the letters admitted as evidence, the case would have gone forward. (Hearne v. United Parcel Service, No. 5:06-CV-117, ED NC, 2007)