Q: Two days ago, our employee called us and told us his live-in girlfriend showed COVID-19 symptoms. We thanked him for letting us know and asked that he stay home to take care of her, and to ask her to get tested. We asked him to get tested, as our other employee has high-risk family members.
We’re an IT company; when our clients call, they need us right away. Since the rest of us knew we’d be tied up with complex projects, we called this employee the next day and asked if he could be available for remote IT service calls since he was at home. He said, “Sure,” potentially thinking that nothing would come up as things have been quiet lately.
The next morning, a client had an emergency. We called our employee to schedule remote IT service call. He hesitated and said, “I’m going to be unavailable all day.” This didn’t square with what he’d told us, he’d be care-taking his girlfriend.
The next day we texted him and asked him if he had his test results. We also asked that he call us. He texted us that he was symptom free, but his girlfriend had tested positive. He didn’t, however, call us.
Since he had recently told his coworker he wanted to travel to a remote lodge five hours away and enjoy a cell-free getaway but had used up all his vacation, we suspect he might have made up a story to negotiate for more leave. Since he’s exempt and had already worked for part of the work week, we’re stuck paying him for the whole week even if he didn’t handle the emergency call.
This isn’t the first time this employee has made up a story to get what he wants. The whole situation frosts us because we’re generous when employees need time off.
We want to call him tomorrow morning and tell him we need him back in the office by 10 a.m., as we are short-handed. We are, as we pull a lead team member off his project to handle the client emergency. If he doesn’t answer his phone, we plan to text him the same message.
If he doesn’t show up, can we terminate him?
A: If you let him know you want him to return, are you sure you want an employee back whose housemate might have tested positive? What consequences might that have for your other employee’s health or for your clients?
Can you fire him? Ask yourself a couple of questions first. Is your employee at-will? Is there an employment agreement or collective bargaining agreement governing the work relationship? Do you have policies that outline the consequences for false statements?
Here’s my suggestion. Check your policies. Then, ask your employee a series of questions so you can pin down his storyline. You might discover you’ve jumped to a conclusion; however, I suspect he’ll give you even more ammunition to support a termination.
According to labor and employment attorney Eric Brown, “While this employee needs to be in quarantine, it is apparent he lied to you. You do not need proof he lied to you to terminate him. He has created trust issues for you and your company, and that is not the kind of employee you should keep around.”
Brown adds, “I don’t recommend you ask him to return, but instead hand him his walking papers and find someone more reliable. If he is an at-will employee, there are no restrictions on your decision to terminate him. I have no concerns about any potential legal claims he might try to raise based on the information you have provided. It is time to move on. You should do so without regret.”