The supervisor did it.

Yep, you’ve concluded that he sent unwanted texts to his subordinate telling her she looked “beautiful.”  Maybe even stopped by her hotel room unannounced one night at a conference for a “nightcap”.

While the subordinate’s career does not appear to have been harmed in the legal sense (i.e. there’s no “tangible employment action”), you’ve concluded that there was something “inappropriate” that happened.

(And let’s state the obvious: harm can exist even outside the “tangible employment action” context — that’s an issue for another post.)

So, back the the issue of the day — something “inappropriate” happened; maybe even something that meets the legal definition of “sexual harassment”.

What then?

Firing? Perhaps.

But what if you conclude that a lesser type of sanction is warranted?  Can you do that? If so, what’s the standard?

In cases where there has been no tangible employment action taken, the EEOC has actually set forth in its guidance a whole discussion that says that firing is but one possibility.  What’s important is that the remedial measures should be designed to:

  • Stop the harassment;
  • Correct its effect on the employee; and,
  • Ensure that the harassment does not recur.

The EEOC’s guidance notes that these remedial measures “need not be those that the employee requests or prefers, as long as they are effective.”

Moreover, “in determining disciplinary measures, management should keep in mind that the employer could be found liable if the harassment does not stop. At the same time, management may have concerns that overly punitive measures may subject the employer to claims such as wrongful discharge, and may simply be inappropriate.”

The EEOC suggests that the employer balance the competing concerns and that disciplinary measures should be proportional to the seriousness of the offense.

What does that mean?

If the harassment was minor, the EEOC suggests, such as a small number of “off-color” remarks by an individual with no prior history of similar misconduct, then counseling and an oral warning might be all that is necessary.

On the other hand, if the harassment was severe or persistent, then suspension or discharge may be appropriate.

And importantly, remedial measures also should correct the effects of the harassment. In the EEOC’s words, “such measures should be designed to put the employee in the position s/he would have been in had the misconduct not occurred.”

The EEOC provides various examples of measures to stop the harassment and ensure that it does not recur.  These include:

  • oral or written warning or reprimand;
  • transfer or reassignment;
  • demotion;
  • reduction of wages;
  • suspension;
  • discharge;
  • training or counseling of harasser to ensure that s/he understands why his or her conduct violated the employer’s anti-harassment policy; and
  • monitoring of harasser to ensure that harassment stops.

As for examples of measures to correct the effects of the harassment, these include:

  • restoration of leave taken because of the harassment;
  • expungement of negative evaluation(s) in employee’s personnel file that arose from the harassment;
  • reinstatement;
  • apology by the harasser;
  • monitoring treatment of employee to ensure that s/he is not subjected to retaliation by the harasser or others in the work place because of the complaint; and,
  • correction of any other harm caused by the harassment (e.g., compensation for losses).

How does this apply in the real world?

Jon Hyman of the Ohio Employer’s Law Blog, highlighted a case several years back where the employer didn’t terminate the offending supervisor on the first go around, but rather gave them a last chance.

Unfortunately, the employer didn’t follow through when the supervisor STILL engaged in harassment.  The case, Engel v. Rapid City School District, is worth a read to show how an employer’s reasonableness the first go around, can be used against it when it doesn’t follow through.

The EEOC’s guidance is a helpful guide to employers in navigating these issues.  The employer should look to the particular circumstances of any matter and determine what punishment is appropriate in that particular matter.

Perhaps it will conclude that firing is appropriate.

But if it concludes, based on an analysis of the entirety of the situation, that something less than that is appropriate too, the EEOC’s guidance can be a useful guidepost for that determination.

The Dialogue – an occasional discussion between myself and a prominent employee-side attorney, Nina Pirrotti returns today after a late summer hiatus. Today’s chat focuses on employee separations and severance agreements.  Share your own tips or observations in the comments below. As always, my thanks to Nina for sharing her insights here.

Dan: Hi Nina! How was your summer? Mine was fine except I can’t stop hearing news about President Trump.

It seems to drown out everything else going on and I think I have a headache from it all. But let’s give it a try, shall we?

I know I’m often confronted with having to fashion separation and settlement agreements for employers.   

What do you find are the items in agreements that you think both sides ought to be paying attention to?

Nina: Drowning in Trump-related noise.  The image is horrifying!  My husband and I were chatting the other day about an old Saturday night live weekend update skit.  As we recall it (it was decades ago), the news media was focused on other events when all of a sudden the character playing Kim Jong Un pops into the screen, holds both arms out and complains:  “What do I have to do to get attention around here?!” 

In the age of Trump that glib remark becomes bone-chilling. 

The art of crafting a fair and balanced settlement agreement isn’t the most riveting of topics in our world but it is among the most important.  

One key strategy I use in evaluating them is to put myself in the position of the employer to ensure I understand company’s (reasonable) priorities. 

Clearly the company seeks to contain the dispute itself, keep the fact that it is settling it confidential, and do everything possible to obtain closure.    If the settlement terms go beyond meeting those priorities, a red flag goes up for me and I scrutinize those terms closely.  

In light of the company’s priorities in containing the dispute and keeping it confidential, I expect to see a confidentiality provision, limiting the disclosure of the settlement agreement to those on a need to know basis (typically immediate family members, financial/tax advisor and lawyer). 

I am also not surprised by a non-disparagement provision which prevents the employee from spreading ill will about the former employer. 

Since I generally advise my client that it rarely reflects well on an employee to speak negatively about his/her former employer (no matter how justified the employee might be in doing so) I usually do not oppose such provisions. 

I will often, of course, make them mutual so that key employees at the company also commit to not disparaging my client. 

In light of the company’s priority in seeking closure, I do not have a one-size fits all response to no re-hire provision.  I understand the company’s concern that should the employee who has settled claims for discrimination apply for a position down the road and the company (for legitimate reasons) declines to hire that employee, it nonetheless remains exposed to a potential retaliation lawsuit by the employee. 

No re-rehire provisions in certain situations can be appropriate but only if they are narrowly tailored to the company itself.  Alarm bells go off for me, therefore, if the employer is large and has numerous affiliates and subsidiaries and the employer insists on including them within the scope of the no-rehire provision. 

In such cases, no-rehire provisions can be tantamount to mini-restrictive covenants and, where they hamper my client’s ability to find comparable work, I will reject them as untenable. 

Speaking of restrictive covenant  provisions, it irks me to no end when an employer tries to slip one into a settlement agreement where the employer was not bound by one during the course of his/her employment!   Such provisions are generally a non-starter for me, absent considerable additional compensation for them. 

Finally, as we discussed in an interview you conducted with me many years ago, I do not abide by liquidated damages provisions. 

If a court determines that my client has breached the agreement, even if that breach is deemed a material one, the employer should still bear the burden of proving that it has been damaged and, to a reasonable degree of certainty, the monetary amount of that damage. 

What are your thoughts, Dan?   Have I articulated the company’s main priorities well?  Are there others I am missing that I should consider the next go-round?   Do tell and I promise to listen with an open mind!

Dan: Well, one day we could talk about Trump-related employment litigation, if you’d like to really talk more about Trump.

You’ve hit on some of the highlights from an employer perspective. When crafting one for an employer, I will let you in on a “secret” – we have a template.

I know — probably not a big surprise to you since our firms have negotiated enough of them.

As a result, I find that agreements at this point are sometimes more of finessing around the edges, rather than major re-writes.

The problem I see is that there are some employers who are using a form separation agreement handed down to them years ago, without understanding what’s in them.

First off, the agreements — regardless of whether you’re trying to comply with federal law or not — should really be written in “plain English”.

Get rid of the “Whereas” clauses.

Use bold language or simply to understand provisions.

And try not to have it be 15 pages.

Second, the agreements should contain: a) a release of all state and federal claims (and local ones if you’re in places like New York City); b) confidentiality (and if it needs to be mutual, so be it); c) non-disparagement (same).  There’s more of course, but start with the basics.

Third, employers should think about provisions that may actually be helpful: a) What are you going to do about references? Is it “name, rank, serial number” or something more? b) Do you want an arbitration provision for any breach of the separation agreement?

Neither is typically a high priority but taking care of some of these details are important.

A few employers are trying to get the “best” deal and negotiate strongly but I find most employers just want to move on; the termination was probably not something that they wanted to do anyways and putting some distance between the employee and the company is probably a good thing for the business ultimately.

Since you’re not finding separation agreements all that exciting, what about how employers handle the termination or termination meeting itself? I’m sure you’ve heard some stories from clients.

Nina: Wow – you hit the jackpot with that question!   

I was once asked at an ABA conference at which I spoke what was one step management lawyers could take to maximize the chances that a departing employee won’t seek out the counsel of someone like yours truly. 

My answer?  Treat them like human beings when you terminate them.   

Don’t do what one Fortune 500 company did to one of my clients which was to call her as she lay in a hospital bed with her infant daughter who had been born earlier that day and inform her that she need not return to work because her job had been eliminated.

Time and again prospective clients had told me that they would have gone quietly into the good night had their employers treated them with a modicum of respect during the termination process. 

I recently settled a case involving a woman in her mid-60s who had worked for the same company for 20 years and proven time and again that she would do ANYTHING for that company and, indeed, had worn a number of hats over the years, shedding one and donning another as the company’s needs shifted.  In her 20th year, a new CEO was hired and you can guess what happened next.  He terminated her and replaced her with a brand new hire, decades younger, who my client had helped train.   

Doesn’t sound kosher right, but that is not the worst part! 

It was the WAY the company terminated her that prompted this lovely, meek, non-confrontational woman to summon up the courage to pick up the phone and call me. 

Her termination consisted of a three minute meeting in which the CEO informed her she was no longer needed and handed her a severance agreement that provided her with two measly weeks’ pay. 

She was literally sobbing as she signed it then and there after which she was immediately escorted out the door.   She contacted me weeks after she signed her agreement.  Too bad, so sad, right?  Wrong. 

The employer neglected to include in her severance agreement language required by the Older Worker Benefits Protection Act (OWBPA), including a 21-day period to consider the agreement and a seven-day revocation period.  She was able to keep her paltry two weeks and I got her many months more on top of that!   

There are so many morals to that story, the least of which is that severance agreements for employees over 40 should comply with the OWBPA.   Employers should be expressing their gratitude to terminated employees who have proven their devotion to the company by providing them with severance that sends the message that they valued that devotion.  

There other ways to go that extra mile to treat such employees with dignity.   Think about how you would want to be treated if you were undergoing one of the worst days of your life and act accordingly.  Thank them for their service, tell them how sorry you are, assure them that you will do everything in your power to facilitate their transition, allow them to say goodbye to their colleagues, hell, even offer to throw them a farewell gathering.  The possibilities are endless.  Sometimes we lawyers get in our own way. 

Dan, I know none of the clients who have had the benefit of your wisdom prior to terminating an employee would succumb to such pitfalls.  But what do you do when you have to clean up after the fact?

Dan: You’ve raised a good question, but I want to address something you said first. 

You said: “Employers should be expressing their gratitude to terminated employees who have proven their devotion to the company by providing them with severance that sends the message that they valued that devotion.”  

It’s that phrase that I think gets to the heart of the issues with severance in 2017. 

When I first started practicing (a few years ago, ahem), there were still many companies that offered severance without ANY release because that just seemed “the right thing to do.”

After all, there was still a bit of an unspoken contract that employers would take care of employees.

Think back to the “Mother Aetna” description of the insurance company.  But as the recessions took their toll and employee mobility took root, that social contract has definitely been frayed over the years.  In part too is the rise of employment litigation. 

Now each employer has to worry: Is THIS going to be the employment termination that leads to a lawsuit?

 I can’t even remember the last time that an employer offered severance without also demanding the employee sign a release. 

In other words, the idea of severance as “gratitude” and “thanks”, has now been replaced with much more of a quid pro quo. 

For employers, the thought ii: If we give you this severance, please don’t sue us. 

And yet for employees, some of them still remember the days when severance was just something companies did without worrying about the lawsuit. And so when the employer demands the release, some employees take offense to it, not realizing that times have changed. 

As a result, I have also seen employers trying to offer less and less; the notion of one week of severance per year of service (with caps) is still strong, but not universal. 

As to being the fixer – yes, sometimes it happens.  The lack of OWBPA provisions is really something that just shouldn’t happen anymore. 

But it’s more that employers go ahead with the termination without thinking about what comes next.  And some employers are moving so fast, that the details such as having two people in the termination meting and having COBRA information available, get lost in the shuffle.

I don’t know of a single employer that has enjoyed firing an employee.  

Even when they catch an employee red-handed, many employers are aware of the consequences that may flow for the employee from a firing. The employee may have a tough time finding a new job, for example. 

But it strikes me that a small subset of terminated employees are LOOKING to bring suit or a payday instead of looking forward to a new time in their life. 

Obviously sometimes past discrimination has to be examined, but what do you think makes employees sue their employers instead of signing severance agreements that are presented to them?

Nina: I think that employer conduct that rises to the level of actionable discrimination and/or retaliation is alive and well, unfortunately. 

The only up side of all of this is that I get to keep my day job, which I love! 

Of course there are those (“small subset” would accurately describe them) who seek to avoid accountability and are looking for a quick pay out of claims. 

Virtually all of those individuals never make it to our front door. 

I say “virtually” because we are human, after all, and one or two may sneak through the cracks in that door. 

But then we have competent lawyers like you for whom we have great respect who (very politely) convince us – – with facts – – that we are being misled. 

That is why I believe that the only situations in which early negotiations are successful are those in which both sides fight their natural inclinations to hold their cards close to their chests and actually share meaningful information from the get go.  

But how to conduct negotiations effectively is a topic worthy of its own separate dialogue, no?

Dan: I think so. Now, I have to save whatever energy I have left to stay up late to watch playoff baseball with the Yankees. Hopefully, it’s a long October filled with lots of late nights and distractions.  Until next time, Nina!  

What Would Clooney Think?
What Would Clooney Think?

Your employee that you are firing should not hear about his firing from a television report first.

I suppose that would seem an obvious rule to follow. But apparently not.

Let me back up.

Earlier today, the President fired FBI Director James Comey — an act that really is more for politics blogs, than an employment law blog.

But as the details of the firing trickled out in the evening, one detail jumped out at me — James Comey found out he was fired through the television.

From The New York Times:

Mr. Comey was addressing a group of F.B.I. employees in Los Angeles when a television in the background flashed the news that he had been fired.

In response, Mr. Comey laughed, saying he thought it was a fairly funny prank.

Then his staff started scurrying around in the background and told Mr. Comey that he should step into a nearby office.

Now, I’m sure there are many who don’t feel sorry for Mr. Comey; but still, where’s the humanity in firing someone via television?

Of course, this kind of schtick isn’t reserved just for politics. I remember back in 2009, I gave the following tip as well: Do not do layoffs or firings via e-mail. Period. (And last year, I wrote about how to conduct firings without getting sued too.)

So, for employers that are having to conduct firings, let me offer five suggestions for the actual informing of employees that they are being fired.

  1. Do it in person if possible, and have a witness.  If it’s not possible (distance, other circumstances), a phone call is a backup option.
  2. Do it in private.  Pick a time perhaps near the end of the day (or beginning) and perhaps in a location in the office that is away from crowds.
  3. Be brief and direct.  And plan in advance, what you are going to say.  Don’t draw it out, and don’t use wishy-washy language.  Some employers start with the “I have some bad news for you today.”
  4. Don’t argue with the employee or get into lengthy discussions regarding the termination. Be clear that the decision is final.
  5. Be sensitive.  Yes, firing an employee is typically hard on the employer, but guess what? It’s harder on the employee. Always.  Acknowledge the employee may disagree with the decision but be consistent with your message.

There is obviously a lot more to a termination meeting than this. Successful meetings are the result of preparation and practice.

But just remember: Your employee should find out he is being fired first from you — not a third party.

hartfordYears ago, I recall having a friendly conversation with another attorney in Connecticut where the topic turned to the notion of “At Will” employment.

When we couldn’t settle on an answer, we moved on to talking about whether the Hartford Whalers would ever come back.

I think we had a better answer for that question: Probably not.

But this is an employment law blog, not a sports one, so let’s get back to the topic.

Employment-at-will is, from a legal perspective, the notion that an employer may discharge an employee without restriction, that is, for any reason or no reason, without incurring any liability to the employee.

Simple enough, right?

Well, not quite. First off, Connecticut recognizes two major exceptions to this doctrine:

  1. The termination cannot violate an important public policy;
  2. The termination cannot breach an implied contract of employment if one as formed.

And, it should be noted, that there is the obvious exception that the termination cannot violate any other state or federal law — such as the laws prohibiting discrimination.

This again sounds simple enough, but in discussions with employers, there is another topic that comes up — fairness.  In other words, employers typically are wise the ask themselves whether a termination under the circumstances is “fair”.

Now that can mean a lot of things in a lot of situations.  For example, suppose an employer hires an employee, but 3 weeks later the employer loses a major contract and needs to layoff ten employees.  It may not be exactly “fair” to terminate this newly hired employee, but if the employer may be being “fair” by laying off newly hired employees first.

Sometimes, the “fairness” question is framed slightly differently.  Suppose you have a newly hired employee who is late to work a few times in the first 30 days and then shows up to work under the influence of alcohol.  Can you simply terminate the employee then?

Under most circumstances, yes, and most people would say this is fair because the employer is simply holding the employee accountable under its rules and a new employee shouldn’t get a lot of free passes.

But now suppose you have a 20 year employee who has an exemplary record of service.  The employee has no record of tardiness or misbehavior, but after a March Madness weekend, shows up at late to work with bloodshot eyes.  It should be noted, though, that a week before, the employee had complained to his boss that the machine he was working on seemed in need of repair.

Under the employment-at-will doctrine, the employers still has the same right to terminate the employee, but I think most people would think this situation ought to be looked at differently.  If the employer proceeds with the termination, it’s possible that it opens itself up to a threat of a claim.

Why? Because while the employment-at-will doctrine still applies, a judge or fact-finding would also then ask the same question — does this termination seem “fair”?

If the answer to that question is “no”, then judges and juries will look for alternative explanations.  Here, one could argue that it was the employee’s complaint that was the motivating factor in the termination and the employee was being retaliated against for complaining.  Otherwise, the termination seems a bit “unfair”.

That type of logic may not be “fair” either, but it goes to show that the employment at will doctrine should not simply be relied on in all circumstances.

I’ve yet to have an employer just say, “I didn’t have a reason for firing the employee. I just felt like it.” That may work under the “at will doctrine” but in the real world, it probably wouldn’t fly.

For employers, always try to look at your decisions through a neutral prism.  Or better yet, ask yourself: What would my neighbor think about this? If the termination seems unfair under those circumstances, it may be a clue to re-think your decision.

 

Before I even begin this post, let me advance the disclaimer right off the bat: Despite the title of this post, there is no sure-fire way to fire an employee without getting sued.

Indeed, the title is a bit of a misnomer.  It’s often been paraphrased that anyone can sue anyone else for anything at any time in any court. While that’s not quite true, it’s not that far off the mark either.

There ARE, however, ways to fire an employee that can reduce or, in some ways, eliminate the likelihood of being sued.

In fact, I had been working on a draft of this post for sometime thinking of how I could help others make the process of firing a bit more humane.  I’ve had many discussions with clients over the years about how firing an employee is one of the toughest things that they’ve had to do as a “boss”. fire

Yes, firing is part of the job, but I’ve yet to meet an employer that has enjoyed it. Inevitably, there is a sigh of relief when the termination meeting is over.

(And to be sure, the impact on the employee is almost always worse.  There are few things worse in life than being fired, even if it ends up leading to good things later.)

Of course, before I could finish my draft post, Jon Hyman alerted me to an excellent post by the Harvard Business Review entitled “A Step-by-Step Guide to Firing Someone.”

It’s really well done and I encourage you to read that first before finishing this post up.

Among the overall tips:

  • Start by creating a transition plan
  • Take the termination meeting itself step-by-step
  • Avoid misdirected compassion

The discussion in the article about the termination meeting itself is particularly insightful.

Here are three more things to think about too:

  1. Ask yourself: “Is the Termination Decision Fair?”  Sometimes, I rephrase this question into the following: “If you were telling your neighbor about the firing, what would he or she think about it?”  But it all comes done to the same point: Would a third person (or a jury) think the process you used to fire an employee was a fair and just decision?

    For performance-related terminations, you may look to whether the employee had been put on notice that his or her performance was faulty and given an opportunity to improve.

    For reorganizations or reductions-in-force, ask whether the process you are using to select employees (whether it’s seniority, overall performance, or other legitimate factors) is explainable and non-discriminatory.

  2. Consider A Separation Agreement: When I first started practicing law, separation agreements were the exception. Now they are the rule.

    If you’re firing someone and you want to avoid being sued, consider a separation agreement where you offer some severance in exchange for a release.  Of course, I’ve been talking about this since way back in 2008 – so this isn’t something new. But do yourself a favor: Use an agreement that complies with the law.

  3. Know the Difference Between “It’s Legal” and “It’s a Good Idea”: Over the years, I’ve had more clients ask me whether a proposed firing was “legal”.  But as I’ve said in the past, just because something is “legal” doesn’t mean it is a good idea.  For example, it may be “legal” to fire an employee by e-mail, but it may result in hurt feelings and the idea by the employee that the employer doesn’t value the employee as a human being.

    So, when you’re seeking legal advice on a termination, be sure you’re asking the right questions and getting the best advice from your counselor about the termination itself.

There are, of course, many more aspects to a firing than just this. But if you follow a few of these items, it can help reduce the risk of a lawsuit.

Today, cross-posted on the LXBN site, I reflected on the biggest legal developments of the first half of the decade.  I am reposting it here, but my sincere thanks to Lexblog for the support it has given me over the past 8 1/2 years and for the opportunity to provide some insight on its site.

yearsWhen I was asked by LexBlog to provide insight into my most significant story I’ve written about in the first half of this decade (and wondering if it started on January 1, 2010 or 2011?), I first thought about looking at some statistics of pages visited on my blog.

Turns out that my most read story was….a blurb on what the IRS reimbursement rate for business travel was in 2010. (Followed by stories on the rates for 2015, 2011 and 2012.).

So, let’s just say that blogging statistics can be a bit deceiving. Though, one other statistic really stands out: There’s been a huge rise in viewing the blog on both social media and on mobile phones.

And that, I think leads me what I think is the big overall story of the 2010s: The rise of social media in employment law.

This is, of course, not new. Back in 2012, I indicated that the biggest story then was the rise of social media.

That has only been amplified in the following years.

For the first few years of the 2010s, it seemed that every other presentation I did was on social media. First, it was to educate employers on what social media was. But then beyond that, was the second layer — how was social media impacting the workforce.  In 2012, I helped plan WESFACCA’s “Day of Social Media” to help educate in-house lawyers on the perils of social media.

My discussions ranged from the now seemingly quaint “Facebook firing” case of November 2010 to the September 2013 case where a Facebook “like” was deemed a protected activity to the new 2015 Connecticut law restricting employer access to personal social media accounts.

But I do think the tide is turning a bit.  Social media has become so mainstream that it is now just part of the myriad of things human resources has to keep track of.  People are less shocked by a Facebook post and employees have become smarter about their use of privacy settings too.

Sure, people still say stupid things on social media and they are still getting fired for it (appropriately, in some instances) but employers are now able to keep some perspective about the whole thing too.

So, in five years (and heaven help all of us if I’m still writing this blog in five years), I think it’s unlikely to still be dominating posts like it did for the first half.

What will take it’s place? My wager is on data privacy.  Yes, it’s a bit self-serving of me to predict this in light of the presentation we did this month on this very topic.  But judging by the interest we’ve been getting in the subject, I think we’re on to something.

Employee data is just one aspect of this.  Rather, employers who store information on a computer are subject to attempts at hacking and theft on a daily basis.  Plus, employees who transmit information may do so without encrypting the information — leaving the data open to prying eyes.

I don’t know where it all will lead, but I will say that if you aren’t doing everything you can to ensure the safety of the data on your networks, you probably aren’t doing enough.

Confession: Back to the Future is my favorite movie (though ask me in two months and I’ll probably say it’s actually Star Wars — employment lawyer’s prerogative).

So, how could I let “Back to the Future” day pass without an employment law-related post!

For those (strange) people who don’t know what I’m talking about — today’s the day that Michael J. Fox (or at least his character “Marty McFly”) travels to in “future” in the Back to the Future trilogy.

Most news outlets are focusing on the lack of hoverboards as a “failed” prediction on the future. (And the Cubs winning the World Series now seems a bit far fetched today too).

But something else that hasn’t been mentioned much — the workplace. There’s a notable scene in Back to the Future Part II in which an older Marty McFly engages in some type of illegal transaction on the evening of October 21, 2015.  He scans a card — seemingly for a black market product.  fired

Only problem? Marty’s boss — Ito Fujitsu — is monitoring the illegal scan.  He immediately sets up a video telephone call with Marty at his home. And tells Marty he’s fired. To reinforce that fact, he sends Marty a fax reading “YOU’RE FIRED!!!” to all the fax machines in Marty’s house.

I remember watching this scene when the movie came out and two things still stand out: 1) It seemed pretty awful to fire someone via telephone call; and, 2) How cool is it that Marty had fax machines in bunch of different rooms!

(I also thought how strange it would be to wear two ties — thankfully that fashion trend went nowhere.)

Now that we’ve reached the date — how does it hold up?

Well, in some ways, not well at all.  Fax machines are nearly extinct and no one has them in various rooms in their house.

But in other ways, I still think we feel the same way about firing someone “over the phone”, or now e-mail — it seems pretty harsh.  Recall the outrage that people felt with Radio Shack laid off people via e-mail nearly a decade ago.

And so, one lesson we can still learn from the movie today? It’s still best to do important employment decisions in person.

And whatever you do, don’t send a fax saying “You’re Fired!!!”  After today, that’s history.

crybabyThe Connecticut Law Tribune reported earlier this month on a new Connecticut Supreme Court case that, for the first time, allowed claims brought by kids to proceed based on injuries suffered by their parents.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers have a new weapon in their arsenal. The state Supreme Court, in a split decision, has ruled that Connecticut children have the right to sue for loss of consortium in personal injury cases. Previously, only spouses were eligible to collect such damages.

The court, in overturning longtime precedent, reasoned that there was a “unique emotional attachment” between parents and children, and that the grown-ups provide “critically important services” to their offspring.

So what’s the big deal for employers? Well, in doing so, the court reversed a decision nearly twenty years ago that had everything to do with employers.  That case,  Mendillo v. Board of Education for the Town of East Haddam, involved a wrongful discharge by a former high school principal.

In that suit, there was also a claim for loss of parental consortium — in other words, were the principal’s kids entitled to compensation because of the actions of the employer impacted their relationship with their parents. As noted by the Tribune: “The principal argued that the wrongful discharge forced her to take a job much further away from home, and thus the long commute deprived her kids of her love and affection.”

The court rejected the claim in Mendillo. But now, the new decision in Campos v. Coleman suggests that such a claim is revived:

Upon reconsideration of the relevant considerations, including the five factors that this court found determinative in Mendillo, we now agree with the concurring and dissenting opinion in Mendillo that the public policy factors favoring recognition of a cause of action for loss of parental consortium outweigh those factors disfavoring recognition. More specifically, we agree that the unique emotional attachment between parents and children, the importance of ensuring the continuity of the critically important services that parents provide to their children, society’s interest in the continued development of children as contributing members of society, and the public policies in favor of compensating innocent parties and deterring wrongdoing provide compelling reasons to recognize such a cause of action.

The court does place some limits on this new claim.  First, the claim must be joined with the parent’s “negligence claim whenever possible.”  Second, the claim does not survive if there has been a settlement or an adverse judgment against the parent.  Third, the child can only claim damages for the period when the child is a minor.  The court also suggests that the claim should be limited to damages arising from injury to the parent’s life.

The court goes on to add that a fact finding reviewing this must also “consider whether the parent’s injuries were insignificant or serious and whether they were temporary or permanent”.  Those will be determined by a case-by-case basis.

Is a parent’s termination of employment that last six months enough to state a claim? This last limitation by the court suggests perhaps not.  But suppose the employee now takes a job two hours away and doesn’t see her kids as often. What then?

At a minimum, the court’s overturning of Mendillo opens the door to a whole new set of potential claims against employers for terminating employees. How big an opening the court created remains to be seen.

A few days ago, The New York Times, ran a series of short essays from people on its “Room for Debate” page. The question it posed? “Should employers get tough with strict policies about social media activity, so that employees face consequences at work for what they say online?”

Standing on a soapbox

Not surprisingly, the opinion’s ranged from the “What you do or say on the Internet is none of your boss’s business except in the rare case where it affects the company” to “Absolutely, employees should face consequences at work for what they say on social media – sometimes”.

You will notice, of course, what these seemingly opposite statements have in common — the exception. 

That is, you should or shouldn’t take action — except when it matters.  Defining “when it matters” though is the tricky part.

For a hospital or financial services company, it may matter a lot more given how regulated those industries are. 

Indeed, the SEC issued guidance last week on how social media should be used in compliance with Regulation FD.  And last fall I highlighted the issue when some analysts were fired for disclosing insider information on Facebook. 

For a small company with a client base that isn’t tech-dependent, it may matter a lot less. 

The problem, of course, is still answering the question of “Does it really matter what the employee does online all the time?”

I would suggest, as I have before, that there is just not a one-size-fits-all answer to this.  Social media continues to go through “growing pains.” And companies need to figure out if the “punishment” fits the supposed “crime” online. 

What’s an employer to do if it hasn’t figured this out yet?

I’ll use what I said over a year ago:

Social media does not mean you have to throw out your existing rules. The rules on confidentiality, or anti-discrimination, for example, still apply on the online world. Employers just need to understand that they what happens in the workplace isn’t necessarily staying in the workplace anymore.

In my talks about technology, one of the things I try to emphasize is that there is no “one size fits all” to your social media and technology policy.

As an example, I often talk about how financial industries have additional regulations relating to things like “insider” information, that may provide a reason to furthe restrict employee use of social media and technology.

I now have a very prominent example to go along with it.

Earlier today, Citigroup fired high profile technology analyst Mark Mahaney.  His termination comes after press reports that he and a junior analyst who worked for him, improperly disclosed confidential information about Facebook’s IPO and unpublished revenue estimates for Google’s YouTube.

Citigroup agreed to pay a $2M fine as part of a Consent Decree released yesterday that contains lots of details about the data leak.  Business Insider has all the details in plain English, including an e-mail that said “my boss would eat me alive”.

Yep.   

For employers in specialized industries, it is important to keep your policies up-to-date and remind your staff to follow those policies.

Information travels fast, but it almost always leaves a trail. One trail here, led to a termination. Not the first time, and it certainly won’t be the last.