Human Resources News & Insights

6 big reasons employees sue

You can twist yourself in knots trying to dodge a lawsuit, but it really comes down to the avoiding the Big Six Mistakes.

Whitney Warner, an employment attorney with the firm of Moody & Warner, says these are the problems that come marching into her office most often: 

Not giving a reason for firing. You’re an at-will employer, so you can fire at will, right? Wrong. Most employees think they’re wonderful workers, and if they get fired for a mysterious reason, they’ll make up their own reason – or their lawyer will. The reason for termination needs to be clear.

Firing an employee for bad performance when the employee has good performance reviews. This is the cousin to “not giving a reason for firing.” Supervisors need to understand that they’ll need a poor-performance paper trail if they want to fire someone. Or else a judge will smell something fishy.

Poor timing. (a) An employee files an internal complaint about the employer or a supervisor, and then (b) shortly after is disciplined for a supposedly unrelated event.  It won’t be hard for a lawyer to connect the dots in court between (a) and (b). Employees who file complaints can be disciplined, but the supervisor better have the documentation in order before making the move.

Delayed internal investigations. When employees file complaints, they want them thoroughly investigated and they want it done now. If you can’t investigate immediately (because, for instance, a key player is on vacation), let the complaining employee know why and when the investigation is likely to begin.

Improper response to an EEOC charge. If you’re contacted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regarding an employee complaint, respond promptly and courteously – and treat the complaining employee courteously, too. If you’re tardy in your response or treat the employee like a leper, expect to hear about it in court.

Failing to follow your own policies. You can have the best policies and training in the world – and indeed some companies have used that as a defense against a complaint. But you better be able to show that your supervisors followed those policies and applied the training.

Bonus: How to lose a lawsuit
Getting sued is bad enough, but after a lawsuit is filed, employers can make the situation worse: Being unprepared for depositions, an inability to locate key documents and responding “I don’t remember” to questions about key events will sink you every time. All of that makes good record-keeping even more important.

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  1. Another important trigger for lawsuits is the manager that is too ‘policy driven.’ Of course, managers will often spout that if they allow someone to go outside the policy they will lose control. Here is a helpful hint. Someone who says that has already lost control. This also reminds me of an old cowboy saying: “A hound dog will always return to a warm home.” That pretty much sums it up.
    Many times in the past, I’ve heard managers proclaim, “This is not a popularity contest.” Well, I hate to disappoint them, but it really is. The employee who just called in sick voted you Least Popular. Like it or not, these are contests you need to win, place, or show. A patient never sues a doctor they like and they never sue a supervisor that showed them kindness. Michael L. Gooch, SPHR

  2. PA Stokke says:

    The idea that supervising is a popularity contest is difficult to swallow knowing there are always employees that will think their supervisors are unfair and “harassing” them when the supervisor is just expecting the employees to do their jobs.

    I make every effort to be fair and considerate to those employees who report to me and still I find a few who think I am making their lives difficult. What actually seems to be the case is the unrealisitic expectations of what it means to work, some examples: a non-exempt employee comes and goes as she pleases without requesting time off in advance; the same employee fails to call the supervisor to say she will be an hour late; and someone who lacks the follow through on items left in his/her inbox because “he/she didn’t put them there, someone else must have.” These are unacceptable behaviors and attitudes that must be dealt with, however when the attempt is made to do so in a fair manner the manager is portrayed as “expecting too much” from the employee. Then what is a supervisor supposed to do? Turn the other cheek despite employees not following the basic rules of work in order to win a popularity contest?

    So what is the balance between appropriate warnings and discipline vs. being too policy driven?

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