Business/Economy

Do you fire him? The answer is harder than you think.

  • Author: Lynne Curry
    | The Workplace
  • Updated: February 4
  • Published February 4

Do you fire an otherwise acceptable employee after he unintentionally creates widespread panic among those your organization has committed to serve? What if he's a new employee who didn't know better – and you question whether his supervisor bears part of the responsibility because he didn't receive adequate training? What if the bulk of the panic occurred because your organization didn't have solid systems in place to prevent the problems one accidental button press or other mistake could create? And what if you find it hard to believe your employee could have actually made that mistake – if he'd stopped to reconsider?

The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency management faced questions such as these on Jan. 13 after one of their employees pressed a "missile alert" button, sending out an emergency alert warning, "Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill." In the Hawaii incident, the employer caught the mistake within two minutes, but that didn't help terrified residents and island visitors until 36 long minutes later — when the false alert was corrected.

The HEMA reassigned the employee, who said he "felt terrible." They also promised to investigate the situation and fix their systems. Their investigation revealed the employee had selected "missile alert" rather than "test missile alert" and then had confirmed his selection after reading a cautionary screen that asked "Are you sure you want to do this?" The employee later said he believed it was an actual alert.

You may think you know the answers to the five questions above. Do you?

Many angry people sent HEMA "fire the employee" messages. Others suggested HEMA "fire his supervisor too." Avitus Group Senior HR Business Partner Micheline Kratovil cautions employers to "take time to cool down before making any firing decision" so they don't let charged "emotions cause them to make a decision they may later regret." She suggests that the organization "suspend the employee for several days, giving management time to consider the alternatives."

For example, your organization may have a progressive disciplinary policy in place and the mistake, no matter how grievous, may be the employee's first mistake. Then, unless you have a provision that allows you to skip the progressive steps in your policy and move straight to termination once you've investigated, you may be partially hamstrung. On the other hand, if management doesn't terminate an employee who makes a mistake of this caliber, it opens itself up future claims if it terminates another employee for a less significant mistake.

If the mistake involves safety and your organization has strong policies in place that proscribe what will happen in a safety incident, your disciplinary decision may be easier. But what your organization lacks policies or if the employee's action falls into a gap uncovered by policies, because, like HEMA, you never considered an employee could make the type of mistake he did? Kratovil suggests that unless the incident is a "one-time occurrence, you review how your organization has handled similar matters in the past" and let consistency serve as a partial guide.

Even if you lack relevant policies and the employee who made the mistake was a new hire, does the fact that an employee is in his first 90 days of employment with your organization keep your organization safe from termination backlash? Maybe not, as the terminated employee may be able to sue you for scapegoating him after placing him in a situation for which he lacked training and oversight. Further, you may need to answer a question like the one on HEMA's dashboard; how did one employee alone have the power to send an emergency alert to more than one million people without the organization having checks and balances in place?

Finally, you may decide, like HEMA, that an investigation can give you the answers you seek. For example, you may learn your employee was texting, internet surfing or on his cellphone at the time of the accident. The train driver blamed for the worst U.S. train crash in 15 years was sending and receiving texts seconds before his crowded commuter train ran through a red light and collided head-on with a freight train.

To make your investigation pay off, you need an experienced investigator. Many people, potentially including the employee's supervisor, immediately move into CYA mode after a major incident, giving you misleading answers to direct the heat away from them. You need an investigator willing to ask those involved tough questions and able to assess the truth.

Once you know what happened and assess it against your policies, your past practices and what's right and fair, you'll have your answer.