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HR Handled Right

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employment liability

Employees who “get no respect” are future plaintiffs, particularly when they’re being fired. In fact, the results of 150 structured interviews with 996 recently fired or laid-off workers (Administrative Science Quarter, September 2000) found that the way an employee was treated at the time of termination had nearly twice as much effect as any other variable in predicting who would sue for wrongful termination and who would not; less that half of one percent of the respondents who felt they had been treated with “very much dignity” at their time of dismissal filed claims in comparison to 15 percent of those who said they had “not at all” received respectful and dignified treatment at the time of termination.

What employees were told when they were let go was also important. Less than 2 percent of terminated employees who were given an accurate and honest explanation of why they were being fired filed wrongful termination claims. In contrast almost 20% of employees who were given no explanation (or this was the first time they were hearing it) filed a claim.

I Don’t Deserve to Be Treated This Way

Looking at the reasons employees file wrongful termination lawsuits (and why they don’t) offers us some insight into how our employees expect to be treated while they’re still working for us. Basically, our employees want us to be FAIR. In particular, they feel entitled to two things from their managers – interpersonal sensitivity and accountability. In other words, employees believe they deserve to be treated politely and respectfully (regardless of the circumstances) and they expect truthful explanations for actions and decisions that that affect them personally.

There are some good psychological reasons why our employees want to be treated this way. For example, research has consistently shown that people who are treated with dignity emerge from experiences – even painful or negative ones – with a sense that they have been treated fairly. And being treated fairly helps us not take the negative outcome quite so personally; when we’re disciplined for something we’ve done, we can handle it. When we’re treated like a bad or insignificant person, it’s a different ball game.

Message from Jurors: Don’t Make a Bad Situation Worse

Jurors apparently agree. In my experience, jurors in employment lawsuits are much more motivated to punish an employer whom they believe has been rude or insensitive during a tough time they are to reward a plaintiff whom they like or feel sorry for. In fact, jurors don’t even have to like, respect, or empathize with a plaintiff if they feel indignant about how an employer handled a termination, layoff or discipline decision.

The good news is that the employer (and, in particular, the immediate supervisor) who treats employees fairly throughout the employment process has a great advantage not only in terms of reducing the likelihood of employees filing claims, but in defending the ones that are filed.

The Bottom Line

While no one is happy about being terminated, it’s the way it’s handled that most often gets the litigation ball rolling. Employees who are fired without warning, who are, without cause, marched out the door by security, or who learn about it through a nasty email are employees with an axe to grind. And there are plenty of lawyers to help them grind it. “It’s not FAIR” is the battle cry of the legal war zone.

Of course, not all mistreatment is intentional. Few managers are trained in how to communicate around discipline and termination and, as a result of their own discomfort, may come across as emotionally uncaring or cold (or take the chicken’s way out and communicate it from a distance). Let’s hope employers wise up to the fact that a manager who doesn’t know how to deliver bad news – a skill that can be easily learned – can be as detrimental to the workplace as one who makes bad decisions.

I love “talking” through e-mail. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about communicating from one glowing screen to another that feels just as private as if I were speaking to that person behind closed doors. Unfortunately, a court of law doesn’t see it that way. Legally, an e-mail is as formal a communication as a letter typed on company letterhead and sent by first-class mail.

E-mail: More Like a Letter Than a Phone Call

The false sense of intimacy that e-mails create has led more than one company astray. In 1995, for example, Chevron Corporation shelled out 2.2 million dollars to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit stemming from inappropriate e-mails circulated by male employees (sample topics: 25 reasons why beer is better than women). Apparently, some of the 1.1 billion business e-mails sent daily by 80 million U.S. workers cross the line between candor and recklessness.

Best Practices in E-mail Policies

For many of us, e-mail is the backbone of how we communicate with partners, vendors, customers and each other. For management, the challenge is to keep this backbone from breaking the company’s bank, and the best defense is a good offense — an e-mail policy. A policy that is likely to protect a company from the fall out of e-mail abuse should:

a) be tied to a company’s harassment and discrimination policy

b) clearly state that the content of e-mails are the property of the company; and

c) specify the scope and frequency of any monitoring that occurs. A generic warning that e-mail can be read by company officials at any time is better than nothing, but not likely to be as effective a deterrent as coming clean with a full disclosure.

Attorneys disagree about how restrictive an e-mail policy should be, from outlawing personal use completely (conservative but often unrealistic) to setting clear guidelines about acceptable personal use. In my experience, companies that set clear guidelines about personal use (lunch time, off hours), outlines specific boundaries about appropriate communication (no gambling, pornography, offensive language), and address in detail disciplinary action for violating the e-mail policy may be most effective in balancing efforts to protect the company legally with the realities of human nature.

The Bottom Line

At the very least, an effective e-mail policy will communicate the message that the legal buck stops with the person sending the e-mail. At the most, it will help protect your company from liability, and, hopefully, encourage reckless e-mailers to pause and reconsider before hitting the send button.