Thursday, April 4, 2013

$4.5 Million For Bad Timing

Last week a San Diego jury awarded an employee-plaintiff $4.5 million.  (Steffens v. Regus Group PLC. ). During an evaluation, Denise Steffens complained that she could not give her staff breaks because the company did not provide adequate coverage.   After Steffens left the room a senior manager instructed a supervisor to get rid of her.

Surprisingly, the company took the case to trial.  It relied on the theory that a jury should reject Steffens' claim if it concluded that the company had a basis for firing Steffens irrespective of her complaint.  By the way, the company's reason for termination was that Steffens did not have a positive attitude.  (Perhaps that was due to the inadequate staffing?).

This case illustrates what I believe is one of the primary reasons employers get sued -- timing.  When adverse action comes soon after an incident such as a a complaint, pregnancy, injury or leave of absence, an employer is buying a lawsuit.  A jury is not likely to believe an employer when it says the employee was no good but waits until after an incident to fire her.  The only logical explanation, concludes many juries, is that the employer wanted to get rid of the employee because of the incident.    

So how long must an employer wait to fire an employee after an incident?  That is a good question.  But if an employer is smart, it won't be forced to answer that question.  A smart employer will fire the problem employer before an incident occurs.  Problem employees never get better. If you have a problem employee, let him/her go today.  Don't wait until tomorrow.

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