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React quickly to employee threats; don’t be wedded to discipline policy

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in Firing,HR Management,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Performance Reviews

The Illinois toll authority settled Robert Merheb's discrimination charge by giving him a new job. The agreement also said that if Merheb committed any infraction, the employer would follow its progressive discipline policy.

The policy called for an oral reprimand for minor incidents, then a written reprimand, a suspension without pay and, finally, discharge "when other corrective measures have failed or if the gravity of the offense warrants it."

Merheb had run-ins with his new supervisor, and six months into the job, criticism from her one day caused Merheb to blow up. His face turned red, his eyes bulged out, he screamed and threatened the supervisor. One employee was afraid Merheb would "go postal."

The next workday, his supervisors met with the HR officer and in-house counsel, and they agreed Merheb should be fired for "gross insubordination, disrespectful conduct [and] threatening behavior."

Merheb sued, claiming breach of contract. He argued that the toll authority didn't follow its progressive discipline policy, which required only an oral warning for his first offense. The courts threw out the case, calling his argument ridiculous. Under that reasoning, if Merheb had killed his supervisor, he could only be given an oral reprimand. (Merheb v. Illinois State Toll Highway Authority, No. 00-2547, 7th Cir., 2001)

Advice: In these unstable times, take threats seriously. Don't let fear of a lawsuit keep you from protecting your workers. Firing an employee for threatening behavior isn't discrimination if you take the same action against any potentially dangerous worker. When your employees are seriously frightened by a co-worker, failing to take action will get you in more trouble.

Make sure your progressive discipline policy also states, as this one did, that you can and will immediately fire an employee for serious misconduct.

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