If Your Employee Does This … You Might Be Getting Sued

“If you’ve ever had to remove a toothpick for wedding pictures, you might be a redneck.” 

-Jeff Foxworthy

jeff-foxworthy-2__large

Remember Comedian Jeff Foxworthy’s “you might be a redneck” jokes?   They were tell-tale signs of human behavior that revealed a person was a classless and/or clueless hick. They were funny because you either knew someone who acted like the character in the joke, or could easily see someone behaving that way.

But, my human resources (“HR”) and management friends, did you know that there are also tell-tale signs of employee behavior that reveal that your company will likely be sued?

So without further ado (and with apologies to Mr. Foxworthy), put your hands together and give a warm HR welcome to this Edition of  “You Might Be a Redneck Getting Sued”:

1. If your employee submits a 4 page, single-spaced typed rebuttal to a verbal warning, you might be getting sued.

(And if your dog and your wallet are both on a chain, you might be a redneck)*

2.  If your employee urgently demands a copy of his personnel file and says he needs to take the afternoon off for “personal business,” you might be getting sued.

(And if you’ve ever financed a tattoo, you might be a redneck)

3.  If your employee attempts to tape record her performance review, you might be getting sued.

(And if you have the local taxidermist’s number on speed dial, you might be a redneck)

4.  If your employee recites the requirements of an employment law statute better than your HR Department can, you might be getting sued.

(And if you’ve been on TV more than 3 times describing the sound of a tornado, you might be a redneck)

5.  If your 70 year old employee (with 35 years of service) that you just terminated has a personnel file thinner than a potato chip, you might be getting sued.

(And if you think the French Riviera is foreign car, you might be a redneck)

6.  If your employee walks around with a bulging notebook documenting every conversation she has had with co-workers and supervisors, you might be getting sued.

(And if you’ve ever mowed your lawn and found a car, you might be a redneck)  

7.  If your employee goes on an epic Facebook rant that his supervisor is treating him “unfairly,”  you might be getting sued.

(And, finally, if your idea of a “7-course meal” is a bucket of KFC and a six-pack, you might be a redneck)

Ba dom bomp!  Thank you! Don’t forget to tip your waiters and waitresses. I will be here all week…

Of course, getting sued by an employee is no laughing matter. Watch for the above warnings signs.  If you observe any of them, make sure that you have a sound business reason (backed up by sufficient documentation) before taking any disciplinary action against the employee.  Otherwise, the joke will be on you.

*All jokes courtesy of Mr. Foxworthy

Mitchell W. Quick, Attorney/Partner
Michael Best & Friedrich LLP
Suite 3300
100 E. Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53202
414.225.2755 (direct)
414.277.0656 (fax)
mwquick@michaelbest.com
http://www.linkedin.com/in/mitchquick
Twitter: @HRGeniusBar
              @wagelaws 

 

 

 

Fight Club’s First Rule of HR – You DO NOT Talk About Your Lawyer

Remember the classic scene in the movie Fight Club?  Brad Pitt, founder of the “Club,” is talking to prospective pugilists about its rules.  He boldly declares the First Rule of Fight Club: “you do not talk about Fight Club.”  He then gives the Second Rule: “you DO NOT talk about Fight Club.”  Needless to say, everyone got the point – keep your mouth shut to avoid trouble.

In homage to Fight Club’s simple genius, I offer a modified version of this Rule for Human Resource Managers:

YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT YOUR LAWYER.

You see, part of my job as a management side employment lawyer is preventative in nature:  I  consult with companies before they make a termination decision.  I do so in order to help them (hopefully) avoid lawsuits, and to put them in the best position to defeat any litigation that ensues.  Among other things, the client and I discuss the rationale(s) for the termination decision, the performance history of the employee, the existence (or lack thereof) of supporting documentation, whether the company is following its own disciplinary policies and/or practices, and the legal risks involved if the employee falls into a “protected” classification under discrimination laws.

These attorney-client discussions are treated under the law as “confidential” – they are protected from involuntary disclosure by the “attorney-client privilege.”  I cannot ethically disclose them.  Likewise, the company representative I am talking with cannot generally be forced to reveal them at deposition, in an interrogatory answer, or at trial.  This protection is critical, as it allows the client and I to engage in candid discussions of sensitive issues, without the fear of later disclosure.

Unfortunately, HR managers often violate my modified Rule. They say things like “we checked with our lawyer and he told us ….,” or “we will talk with our lawyer and get back to you”  in termination or disciplinary meetings with employees, or when discussing “reasonable accommodations” with them. To a degree it is understandable, as part of the normal  “give and take” of a conversation with an employee.

Moreover, on their face such remarks seem harmless.  But in reality, they are subtly dangerous.  Why? First and foremost, the client may have just waived the attorney-client privilege.  Remember, the privilege is for the client’s benefit.  But it can also be waived by the client. Any statement that references the content of a client’s prior conversation with their lawyer will likely be construed (or at least argued) as a “waiver” of the privilege.

If waived, the employee’s lawyer could ask the client probing questions about the details of that conversation, including all statements made before the decision to discipline, discharge or not accommodate.  This could result in the disclosure of comments that, even if not acted upon by the client, will be presented as evidence of a discriminatory or retaliatory intent, and/or at least an awareness of the potential for litigation.  Such statements will be trumpeted as “smoking guns” for the company’s “real” motivation behind its decision.

Second, such comments often “raise a flag” in an employee’s mind.  The employee thinks his situation has become “serious” –  for goodness sake, the company just told him/her that its lawyer has become involved!   With this knowledge, the employee usually does one of a couple of things: (a) he becomes very sensitive and files a “retaliation” claim for any adverse employment action taken against him, believing it was caused by his raising of a “legal” issue; or (b) goes out an immediately retains his own lawyer to advocate on his behalf; or (c) both.

None of these outcomes are positive for the company.  So apply the First Rule of HR:

YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT YOUR LAWYER

Mitchell W. Quick, Attorney/Partner
Michael Best & Friedrich LLP
Suite 3300
100 E. Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53202
414.225.2755 (direct)
414.277.0656 (fax)
mwquick@michaelbest.com
http://www.linkedin.com/in/mitchquick
Twitter: @HRGeniusBar
@wagelaws