Category Archives: Termination

What Can I Say? Giving References in Texas

Just when you thought you’d heard the last of Fired Felicia, you get a call from Felicia’s prospective employer, who is diligently checking Felicia’s references. What can you as an employer in Texas legally say about Felicia?

Employment lawyers like me have been telling employers for years to remain close-lipped, giving only dates of employment, job title, and last rate of pay. Safe, but almost deceptive in its reticence. We advise this taciturn approach because of our fear that you will say too much and say something defamatory.

Why do I have that fear? Because in a small city like Amarillo, or really anywhere in West Texas, we spend a lot of time on the other end of the reference spectrum. Instead of reticent, we are gleefully chatty.

Hiring managers around here will pick up the phone, ask for their friend who works at Felicia’s last employer, and find out all about Felicia’s problem pregnancy, Felicia’s attitude problem, or Felicia’s suspected but unconfirmed alcohol dependency. That’s when my head explodes as an employment lawyer who is trying to keep the company out of legal hot water.

The rules of references must be one of the most misunderstood areas of human resources. But in Texas, it really shouldn’t be that hard. Here are some simple guidelines: Continue reading What Can I Say? Giving References in Texas

10 Facts Texas Employers Should Know About Unemployment

Do I have to pay unemployment on my employee who just quit/resigned/got fired/was laid off?

During most of my thirty years as an employment lawyer, I have been asked that question at least once a week. Here are ten basic facts that every employer in Texas needs to understand about our state’s unemployment system: Continue reading 10 Facts Texas Employers Should Know About Unemployment

Transgender Woman Protected From Sex Discrimination, Court Decides

The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last month that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits an employer from discriminating against a transgender woman “on the basis of sex” and also ruled that the supervisor’s belief that gender transition “violates God’s commands” is not a defense to employment discrimination.

The Sixth Circuit, which decides federal cases brought in Kentucky, Tennessee, Michigan and Ohio, reviewed the firing of Aimee Stephens from her job at a funeral home in which she had originally worked as a male in the case of EEOC v. R.G & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes (U.S. 2018)

After she was diagnosed with gender identity disorder, Stephens told her boss, Thomas Rost, that she was planning to transition to female. Her boss fired her. Rost stated during the lawsuit that he terminated Stephens’s employment because “he was no longer going to represent himself as a man” and that a person’s sex is “an immutable God-given fit”.

The Sixth Circuit decided, like the Second and Seventh Circuits (covering New York, Vermont, Connecticut and Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, respectively) before it, that a company violates an employee’s civil rights if the employer fires that worker on the basis of sex, including sexual orientation and gender identity.

The funeral home where Stephens worked hoped that its termination of her would be protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the U.S. Supreme Court’s case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (U.S. 2014).

However, almost three decades ago. the U.S. Supreme Court had already rejected the argument that a supervisor’s religious squeamishness was sufficient to overcome the civil rights laws. The United States Supreme Court ruled in Employment Division v. Smith (U.S. 1990) that a person may not defy neutral laws of general applicability even as an expression of religious belief. “To permit this,” wrote conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, “would make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”

Despite this long-standing Supreme Court precedent, the funeral home argued that the presence of a transgender employee would require Rost to leave his job, because forcing him to work with a transgender person was an infringement of his religious rights and also would “often create distractions for the deceased’s loved ones”. Continue reading Transgender Woman Protected From Sex Discrimination, Court Decides

Does the First Amendment Apply at Your Company?

Does the First Amendment protect an employee in Texas, allowing him to say whatever he wants on the job–to take a knee in protest, to write a manifesto about how women don’t belong in the tech sector, or to tell the CEO of his company to “kiss my a—, Bob”?

Not a chance. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

By prohibiting Congress from passing laws that abridge freedom of speech, the Constitution did not limit a private sector employer’s right to fire an employee (on the other hand, government employees have some First Amendment protections).

In addition to no constitutional bar, businesses in Texas are protected because Texas follows the “at will” employment rule, meaning a private employer can fire an employee for a good reason, a bad reason or no reason at all, including firing an employee because the employer didn’t like something the employee said, either out loud or symbolically.

So, if Jerry Jones had decided to fire any Dallas Cowboy who kneeled during the National Anthem before the Monday Night Football game, the First Amendment would not have protected the player. Neither would Texas law. Interestingly, Jones came up with an inoffensive compromise by encouraging his players to kneel before the anthem to protest racial injustice and even kneeling with them. By the time the anthem played, the whole team was standing in unity, with arms locked together.

Google also was unhampered by the First Amendment when the company fired an employee in August for writing a manifesto blasting Google culture of diversity. Particularly, the employee argued that women occupied fewer leadership positions in the tech industry because of unsuitable personalities. For example, he said that women are more anxious, and therefore unable to handle the stress of high-powered leadership positions. He concluded that efforts by Google to place more women in technology and leadership were “unfair, divisive, and bad for business.”

However, the First Amendment’s application is not the end of the inquiry. There are other laws besides the First Amendment that an employer has to consider (in consultation with the company’s employment lawyer) before firing an employee for expressing herself.

  • Is the employee’s speech related to the employee’s religion? Employers even in the private sector cannot discriminate on the basis of religion and also must accommodate a person’s religion. The discrimination laws always trump the “at will” rule.
  • Is the employer allowing one group to express themselves but not another protected class? For example, if only African-American players for the Dallas Cowboys had kneeled during playing of the Star-Spangled Banner, but some white players failed to put their hands over their hearts, Jerry Jones may have faced a racial discrimination lawsuit if he had fired only the kneeling players for disrespect.
  • Are you punishing any employees for speaking a language other than English at work? For safety or productivity purposes, there may be a limited way in which you can do this during actual work time, but it is a very tricky area of the law and you don’t want to attempt this without serious consultation with your employment attorney.
  • Is the employee complaining about a safety violation, a crime or other public policy matter? In that case, there may be whistleblower statutes that protect the employee.
  • Is the employee expressing problems with wages, hours, shifts, policies or other terms and conditions of employment with other employees? Then the National Labor Relations Act may prohibit you from firing the employee because she is participating in “concerted activity” under this labor statute, even in a non-unionized workplace. This is what happened with the coal miner who sent a paltry bonus check back to the CEO with the words “kiss my a–, Bob” on them. A court made the coal company return that employee to work after he was fired, because his protest was protected concerted activity involving his pay.
  • Texas employers are prohibited from taking adverse action against an employee based on who the employee voted for or for refusing to reveal how he or she voted. Employers must allow employees time off to vote and to take leave to attend a local or state political convention and cannot threaten or retaliate against the employee for such attendance.

Interestingly, there are times when an employer almost has no choice but to fire an employee for expressing himself. For example, if an employee is sexually harassing another employee with lewd comments, suggestive emails and/or pornographic pictures, the hostile environment the harasser is causing with his words and actions may require the employer to fire him after completing an investigation, both to protect the company and the victim.

Six Steps to Preventing and Reacting to Employee Embezzlement

This week’s local headlines involve the city manager of Sunray, formerly the police chief and city manager of Panhandle, being accused of employee embezzlement. Rob Roach was arrested this week after an investigation by the Texas Rangers for alleged theft by a public official of property between $30,000 and $150,000.

I have no idea about Mr. Roach’s guilt or innocence, but the news did remind me about one of the most disappointing things about my 30 years of law practice in Amarillo, Texas–the large number of times I have had to help an employer who has been ripped off by a trusted employee.

I have seen employees use company credit cards for personal purchases (how many law firms need to be buying diapers at Sam’s?), steal cash paid by a patient for a medical visit, forge signatures on checks made out to the employee (one trusted employee did this while her boss was undergoing chemotherapy), turn in fictitious business expenses, and create false company payrolls or bank accounts.

Unfortunately, employee embezzlement is not unusual in our area, but it is often preventable. We Texans tend to be trusting people, but you wouldn’t just leave the front door to your house open with a sign pointing out where you keep the good jewelry. As a business owner or manager, you should be just as wise about protecting your business and your livelihood from thieves.

Here are six steps that you can take to help curb any embezzlement by your staff:

  1. Set the tone. Do you as a business owner or manager demonstrate integrity in how you do business? Your employees are taking their cues from you. If you cheat on your taxes, overcharge your customers or rip off your suppliers, don’t be surprised if your employees begin to feel that they are entitled to cheat you as well.
  2. Hire well. If an employee is going to be handling money in your business or given a company credit card, be sure to do a criminal background check (following all the Fair Credit Reporting Act requirements for doing so). Check all of the applicant’s references and past employers, asking specific questions about the potential employee’s integrity.
  3. Reduce the opportunity for theft. Guard which ones of your employees will have access to company goods and cash. Protect your keys, passwords, and access to your checks, your online banking and all accounting records. Use the built-in protections of your software. Quick Books, for example, will allow you to set up limited access for certain functions so that no employee has free rein with all of your bookkeeping. Require weekly or monthly balance sheets, budgets and profit and loss reports and study them carefully. In addition, train yourself to use your accounting program so you can randomly double-check things yourself.
  4. Utilize more than one person for the bookkeeping. You should have checks and balances in place, such as having a different person sign the checks than the one who printed them. If your customers pay in cash, your system for receiving the deposits, writing receipts, and reconciling the cash to the accounts must be clear and followed religiously. Cross-train more than one person for each job so that there is someone always available to audit the other’s handling of the money. Take a cue from banks, which often require their financial personnel to take vacations lasting at least one week so that another person can review the absent employee’s money-handling and lending procedures during that break.
  5. Watch employees who are at risk. Triggers such as gambling, addiction and family stressors often proceed employee theft. You must be aware of what is going on in your employee’s lives outside of work if you want to prevent misconduct inside of work. Also, keep in mind that many of your employees have financial problems every day, even without specific triggers. It is just a fact that Americans tend to live beyond their means. Providing free financial education and guidance may not seem like your job, but it could prevent an employee’s desperate attempt to embezzle from you.
  6. Consider surveillance of your workplace. While audio recordings create potential federal wiretapping issues, you can always install video surveillance of your workplace. You can also search employee emails and physical surroundings, like desks. Of course, you need to talk to your employment lawyer before starting these activities to get the proper consents and notices and make sure you are not violating privacy rules, but if you believe some surveillance or searching is the best way for you to protect your property, you should explore this option.

Despite all precautions, you may someday suspect that an employee has embezzled from you. If you are unfortunate enough to be ripped off by an employee, here are the six steps to reacting to the theft:

  1. Internal investigation. You can put an employee you suspect of embezzlement on a suspension while you investigate. Get help from your employment attorney as you gather documents and talk to coworkers so that you understand exactly what happened and how much was stolen.
  2. Confront the employee. Before you fire the suspect, have a face-to-face meeting with the employee to allow the employee to explain, if possible. If the evidence still demonstrates that the employee is guilty, then talk to the employee about a confession (in writing) and repayment of the debt. Once caught, some employees are ashamed and cooperative. However, do not block the employee from walking out (you will be accused of false imprisonment) or defame the employee by sharing information about the theft with those who have no pressing business need to know.
  3. Fire the employee. Don’t worry about a wrongful termination suit or unemployment claim. Clear evidence of theft by the employee is one of the strongest defenses to any kind of legal complaint by a former employee. However, be very careful about deducting your losses from the employee’s final paycheck. The employer has the burden to demonstrate that the employee is personally and directly responsible for the theft before the deduction can be taken, so make sure your evidence is solid.
  4. Alert your insurance company. Most business insurance policies include an employee theft provision. You may be able to recoup some of your losses with insurance. File a claim with the insurance company and provide it with the evidence. Just understand that often the insurance company will insist that you also involve the police.
  5. Prosecute the theft. Your insurance company may require this before reimbursing you for your losses. More importantly, you need to prosecute to prevent the employee from doing this to another employer. Getting away with a theft once makes it more likely the employee will steal again.
  6. Analyze and correct your procedures. Do a deep dive into your security vulnerabilities that led to the embezzlement. Did you allow one person too much access? Were you sloppy with your checks and balances? Did you fail to review your credit card statements? You need to understand why this happened and how to prevent it in the future.  

Running Off an Underperforming Employee Is Not a Viable Option

In my long experience as an employment law attorney, I have come to realize that employers really, REALLY hate to fire employees. Some employers are scared of confrontation, others hate admitting they made a bad hire, and some just can’t find the right words.

Whatever the reason for being unable to fire a poor performer, employers often ask me about “running off the employee”. Running off an employee usually means making the employee so miserable the employee will voluntarily quit.

The employer trying to run off an employee may give the employee the worst duties at the company, criticize the employee in front of others, deny the employee’s vacation request, cut the employee’s pay, transfer the supervision of the employee to the worst supervisor, or make the employee work the graveyard shift.

Of course, this approach to termination often also makes the employee so angry that when the employee leaves, he or she becomes much more likely to sue the employer.

Running off an employee is the layman’s way of doing what we in the legal field call a “constructive termination”. A constructive termination occurs when the employer makes the working conditions so intolerable that any reasonable employee would feel forced to resign.

When an employee quits with good cause because the employer made continuing to work there intolerable, there are numerous legal consequences, such as: Continue reading Running Off an Underperforming Employee Is Not a Viable Option

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