Heated firing of employee may haunt frustrated boss

Lynne Curry

Q. Two months ago I took over a demoralized workgroup. None of my employees seems to like his job, other employees, his last manager or me.

I'm trying to turn things around but it's hard going. Nothing I do seems to work. I'm having a tough time relating to employees who won't get with the program and lack any kind of work ethic.

One of the worst is "Ted," an overweight, cranky salesman who survives by coasting on the revenue coming from a few good ol' boy clients. Ted takes long lunches. When I ask him where he's been, he says "with clients," forcing me to accept what he says or dig deeper to check up on him. Also, while I'm not a prude I can't stand cussing and Ted uses the f-word as a noun, verb and adjective.

Last Friday, we were cleaning our offices, getting ready for a move downtown to new offices and a visit from corporate. Ted wandered back from lunch, and I asked him to help me take several bags of trash to the dumpster. Ted said he wasn't an f-ing laborer. I nodded at the two bags in my hands and said, "I'm not asking you to do anything I'm not doing."

Ted cursed again and turned away. I said, "Walk away and you're fired."

He snickered. "For not hauling trash?" By then we had an audience of other employees who heard Ted yelling, "You can't fire me for b---h reasons." I shouted back, "Leave and you're canned." He left screaming, "You haven't heard the last of this."

What kind of trouble can Ted create, and what do I need to do now?

A. Ted gave you multiple reasons to terminate him -- but given that you fired him publicly and angrily, that may not save you from a suit for wrongful discharge.

Alaska employers can fire an employee "for any reason or no reason" as long as they don't violate public policy or the doctrine of good faith and fair dealing.

Ted responded insubordinately to your request, giving you a solid reason to discharge him -- if you'd handled it calmly. Employers can't, however, terminate employees arbitrarily, particularly employees who have held their jobs for a long time.

According to rulings from the Alaska Supreme Court, no employer can be expected to employ a worker in the face of deliberate and repeated insubordination. Employers who refuse legitimate assignments from their managers in effect fire themselves. A court or jury, however, may not consider one refusal sufficient for an on-the-spot termination, especially if Ted had held his job for years.

For this reason, you need to sit down and document Ted's refusal, his long lunches, his cussing and other problem behaviors. A jury may see Ted's evasive answers to your legitimate supervisory question, "Where have you been?" as insubordinate.

You also need to ask yourself if you let other employees get away with similar behaviors. If so, what led you to single Ted out? If Ted is an older employee, can he allege age discrimination and win because you treated him more harshly than others?

Ted's cussing won't go over well with a judge or jury. According to at least one court of appeals ruling, employers can require employees to refrain from "aggravated use of profanity or abusive language as a condition of employment," particularly if the employer has a policy outlining expectations of workplace professionalism.

Next, you became part of the problem when you overreacted. In hindsight, you could have set down the bags, brought Ted into a private setting and said, "I'm giving you a directive to assist me and this company by doing what it takes to be ready for the visit."

If Ted had refused, you could have could have said, "You're suspended pending investigation" and gathered the documentation needed to fire him. By first suspending and then terminating, you'd have shown you made your decision objectively and not emotionally.

Finally, apologize to your work group for what they saw. When you do, let them know you expect every one of them to step to the plate. Turn this incident into a clear message that you and your employees need to turn things around.

Management/employee trainer and the owner of the consulting firm The Growth Company Inc., Dr. Lynne Curry provides columns to newspapers in multiple states. For questions, Curry can be reached at www.thegrowthcompany.com. Reader information: If you read last week's column and want a free consultation from Alaska Occupational Safety and Health, call 907-269-4955).