Category Archives: Termination

Why Drug Test Your Current Employees?

As an employer, you should be committed to a drug-free and alcohol-free work environment that protects both your employees, your customers and the general public.

Drug testing your employees is an important component of that safety commitment. However, while many employers test before hiring an applicant, nearly two-thirds of employers never conduct a drug or alcohol test on current employees, according to a Society for Human Resources study in 2011.

When employers do test current employees for drugs, employees test positive about 4.2% of the time, according to the latest numbers from the annual Quest Diagnostics Drug Testing Index. That number is creeping up and is at its highest level since 2004.

Even if you are a small employer with only 25 employees, that still means that one of your current employees could test positive for drugs right now. What if that one person is the delivery driver, the heavy machinery operator, the EMT, the security guard or any other safety sensitive employee working for you? Are you willing to take a chance with the safety of your other employees and your customers?

That only 4.2% of employees test positive for drugs or alcohol is actually a little low considering how many people are actually addicted to those substances. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2016 estimated that 8% of all Texans have a substance abuse disorder, with three-quarters of those Texans addicted to alcohol. The rest are hooked on marijuana, meth, heroin, cocaine and prescription opioids, in that order.

As a Texas employer, you don’t have to allow employees to be impaired at work. Continue reading Why Drug Test Your Current Employees?

Simple Firing Form Keeps Employer’s Story Straight

An employer should always carefully document the reasons for firing an employee. But your termination documentation doesn’t have to be complicated.

I’ve attached a one-page form that you as an employer can quickly fill out and place in the employee’s file whenever you have to terminate the employment of one of your workers. But just because the form is simple doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t put some thought into the process.

Even though Texas is an “at will” employment state, it is wise to have good reasons for firing an employee. You need to stick to those reasons exactly when you complete the unemployment form from the Texas Workforce Commission, if you get a discrimination complaint from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and if you hear from the Department of Labor on a retaliation case.

Nothing looks more suspicious to a government investigator or to a jury than an employer’s termination story that changes over time. The all-important consistency of your answers begins with this document filled out on the day that the employee is terminated.

Clients are always asking me what they can do to prevent getting sued by an employee who was fired. Having good, nondiscriminatory reasons for the termination and documenting those reasons carefully are the first steps in preventing a lawsuit, or at least winning one.

Click here to download this simple firing form:

Termination Documentation Form 

White House Fails Basic “Firing 101”

Note: This is not a political post. President Donald Trump had the right and the authority to fire Acting Attorney General Sally Q. Yates last night.

From an employment lawyer’s perspective, the White House’s written statement about Sally Yates’ firing is a textbook example of how I advise my employer clients not to behave. https://www.whitehouse.gov/…/statement-appointment-dana-boe…

“The acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, has betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States. . . . Ms. Yates is an Obama Administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration.”

We employment lawyers encourage our business clients to leave a fired employee with his/her dignity. I would never suggest an employer use loaded words like “betrayed” and “weak” or to impugn a long-term, high-ranking employee’s integrity during a job termination meeting. It is ill-advised in most industries to burn bridges like this or to set your business up for a lawsuit by a scorned ex-employee.

Sometimes terminating an employee’s job is necessary. For advice on how to fire in a more beneficial way, read my blog post on firing without fear.

Employers Need Solid Reasons for Firing

Discrimination cases filed by former employees against their companies are usually won or lost on one concept—pretext—meaning that the reason given by the employer for the firing appears to the jury as a cover-up or excuse for the real reason, which the plaintiff will strongly suggest is discrimination. If the employer’s reason for firing the employee doesn’t perfectly line up with the facts developed in discovery and at trial, the business has a good chance of losing the case to the disgruntled employee.

Let me give you an example. If you fired Mary for being tardy on five specific occasions, but your security camera tapes, your time clock records, her emails and the testimony of other employees show she was not late on all of the dates that you specified, Mary’s discrimination case just got a big boost because your reasons look like pretext for terminating Mary. Then the door is wide open to say that her termination from employment occurred because she is black, a woman, disabled or born in another country.

When presented with this contrary hard evidence about Mary’s tardiness, it is not going to convince the jury when you say, “Oops, I got the dates of her tardies wrong” even if that is what actually happened. There is little a defense attorney can do to help you with the jury at that point because your reasons for the termination just look like an excuse for something more sinister.

Juries are pretty savvy in sifting through an employer’s reasons. As the employer, you must assure that the reasons you fire an employee are specific, provable, clearly-stated, well-documented and stay consistent from the time you first discipline the employee to the time of trial. Any variation in your reasons will come off looking like pretext.

Here are some other things that employers do that usually will be perceived as pretext in front of a jury: Continue reading Employers Need Solid Reasons for Firing

Pot Smoking Still Grounds for Termination

Can an employer in Texas still fire someone for smoking pot? For once, my lawyerly answer does not have to be “maybe”. Yes, you can fire an employee for testing positive for marijuana.

Unlike Colorado, Washington state, Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C., the Lone Star State still treats the recreational use of marijuana as illegal. It is also illegal to buy, sell, grow or even possess pot in Texas, so going to Colorado to buy it and then bringing it back to Texas is not an option.

If your written substance abuse policy tells your employees that you prohibit “illegal drugs”, then you have the right to enforce that policy regardless of whether the pot is illegal under federal, state or local laws.

Therefore, a Texas employer can still require a drug test of an applicant, a current employee, an employee involved in an accident or when the employer has a reasonable suspicion of drug use. If the test shows that the employee has used marijuana, the employer can discipline or fire the employee for violation of the company substance abuse policy.

But what if the employee claims that he is smoking pot for medicinal reasons? Continue reading Pot Smoking Still Grounds for Termination

Should You Protest Unemployment Claims?

Unemployment claims can cost you money as an employer because your Texas Workforce Commission tax rate will escalate the next year if an employee is awarded benefits. But handling your unemployment claim deftly has become critical in avoiding even more expense down the road when your employee sues you.

It is not always an easy decision about whether to protest unemployment and you have to make that decision quickly (usually within 14 days of the notice of an unemployment claim). On the one hand, you as an employer don’t want your tax rate to increase. On the other hand, you don’t want to say something harmful in an unemployment appeal hearing that will have significant consequences in later litigation.

At an employment law conference that I attended this week, I heard an employee’s lawyer with 40 years of experience say that he believes that TWC unemployment appeal hearings are one of his best tools for winning discrimination cases for employees. Why? Because at the appeal hearing, the company’s witnesses have to testify under oath about the reasons an employee was fired. Often, the employer’s witnesses are not represented by legal counsel and they are not adequately prepared for the testimony they are going to give. They give inconsistent or unprovable reasons that later come back to haunt them when the former employee sues the company in a completely different matter.

The plaintiff’s lawyer admitted that he likes to ambush supervisors and HR representatives at the TWC unemployment hearing and get helpful sworn testimony for his client from those witnesses, because the company’s representatives rarely expect the employee to appear at the hearing with legal counsel. When he cross-examines them, the witnesses get flustered and accidentally provide testimony harmful to the company.

The result is Continue reading Should You Protest Unemployment Claims?

Cussing Out the CEO

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What is the proper response from the company when two employees express their anger at the CEO when they receive bonus checks by returning the checks, voiding them, and writing, “kiss my a– Bob,” and “eat sh– Bob” on the checks? According to the National Labor Relations Board, firing them is improper.

After returning the checks, the employees posted pictures of the checks on a private Facebook page.  Other employees followed suit by also voiding their checks and posting them to the Facebook page.  However, only the first two employees wrote profanities on their checks.  Not very long following this incident, both employees were fired.  They filed grievances shortly thereafter with the NLRB.

The NLRB reinstated the employment of the two West Virginia coal miners.  After their union voted against bonuses based on productivity, the coal mine management decided to implement the bonus program anyway.  Apparently the two miners were unimpressed with the company’s generosity.

The NLRB judge who presided over the case found that the two miners had been wrongly discharged and that the words on the checks, “while profane and offensive, were nevertheless expressions of protest and outrage over what those employees viewed as implementation of a plan that would adversely affect their safety conditions and which constituted what the employees believed was a surprising violation of the terms of the collective-bargaining agreement.” Continue reading Cussing Out the CEO

HR Director Can Be Individually Liable for FMLA Violation

Most human resources professionals and managers think that working for a corporation gives them some protection from being sued themselves by former employees, but a federal appeals court recently held that an HR director can be individually liable for violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). The federal Second Circuit Court of Appeals made this decision in Graziadio v. Culinary Institute of America, No. 15-888-CV (2d Cir., Mar. 17, 2016).

The Second Circuit decided that the HR director who instigated the firing of an employee who was out on leave to care for her ailing sons could be sued in addition to the company who formerly employed the plaintiff. The FMLA provides that for purposes of being a defendant in a lawsuit, an “employer” includes “any person” who “acts, directly or indirectly in the interest of an employer” toward an employee. Therefore, a manager, supervisor, vice-president, HR director, leave administrator and other decision-making employees could be sued along with their company if the FMLA isn’t administered correctly.

The courts look at the “economic realities” of the situation, including whether the HR director had the power to hire and fire employees; supervise and control employee work schedules or conditions of employment; determine the rate and method of payment; and maintain employment records. Although a vice-president actually made the final firing decision in the Graziadio case, the evidence suggested that the HR director played an important role and the vice-president essentially just rubber-stamped the HR director’s recommendation of terminating the employee who was on leave.

These kinds of decisions are frightening to management employees who have to make hiring and firing decisions and those who have to administer the complex FMLA. However, this ruling should not come as a complete surprise to those of us who live and work in Texas, because the Fifth Circuit, which rules on federal cases in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, made a similar ruling ten years ago.

In addition, our Fifth Circuit court approaches the Fair Labor Standards Act (wage and hour) cases in the same manner. If the economic realities demonstrate that a supervisor was responsible for the misclassification of an employee as an independent contractor (meaning that the proper taxes weren’t paid, among other violations of employment laws) or the underpayment of minimum wages or overtime, then that supervisor may face a personal lawsuit by a former employee, along with the company being sued.

How can you as a manager or HR director protect yourself from a lawsuit that could endanger your personal assets? Continue reading HR Director Can Be Individually Liable for FMLA Violation

Employee Free Speech on Facebook

Is your employee free to post a Facebook rant about one of your supervisors that says, “Bob is such a nasty M___ F___ don’t know how to talk to people!!! F___ his mother and his entire f___ing family!!! What a loser!!! Vote YES for the UNION!!!”?

Many of my West Texas employers would fire the employee on the spot for that Facebook post.  But if you called an employment attorney, you would be advised against that termination because the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) just decided last month that the employer involved in this mess had to reinstate the foul-mouthed employee and pay him lost wages.

The NLRB reasoned that the employee’s vulgar rant was “protected, concerted activity” protected by the federal act relating to the formation of unions. The NLRB noted that the harassment policy in the company’s handbook didn’t prohibit vulgar or offensive language, even though that policy was cited as the basis for the discharge. No employee had ever been fired by this employer before for obscene language. In addition, the company was in the middle of an election to decide if the workplace would be unionized.

However, even if your workplace will never be unionized, your actions as an employer can be scrutinized on the basis of employees engaging in “protected, concerted activity” to improve their pay and working conditions. For a summary of the cases that the NLRB has pursued against non-union employers, see the NLRB’s new website dedicated to their enforcement of that law. http://www.nlrb.gov/rights-we-protect/protected-concerted-activity

The NLRB has also been very busy telling non-union employers what can and can’t be in an employee policy manual. On March 18, 2015, the NLRB’s general counsel released a memo concerning those employment policies that the NLRB believes have a “chilling effect” on employees’ rights to engage in protected activities. http://www.nlrb.gov/reports-guidance/general-counsel-memos

Here are precautions you can take as an employer to avoid running afoul of the NLRB or a crafty plaintiffs’ employment lawyer that sues you for your “illegal” handbook policies: Continue reading Employee Free Speech on Facebook

TWC Creates Calculator to Estimate the Effect of Unemployment Claim

Whenever a Texas employer receives a Notice of Application for Unemployment Benefits, the first question that runs through the employer’s head is “How much is this going to cost me?” The answer to that question can influence whether the employer decides to protest the unemployment decision, how much time, effort and worry to invest in the protest and whether to hire a lawyer to protest the unemployment award. The cost estimate has been a difficult question for employment lawyers to answer. But now the TWC has provided all of us a calculator that will estimate how a particular employer’s tax rate will change if the former employee collects the maximum unemployment benefits.

When you receive the initial notice, go to this site and input your former employee’s salary for four of the last 6 quarters and the tax rate information off of your annual Tax Rate Notice from the TWC to get a tax rate estimate. With that estimated tax rate, you can compare it to your previous TWC reports and see the change that will occur in the Texas unemployment taxes that you will pay based on that one employee receiving unemployment benefits. Remember as you make that comparison that your tax rate increase will be effective for three years, not just one, after an employee files a successful unemployment claim.