One of the most challenging things a business owner or manager must do is discipline an employee who is violating company rules. Even more difficult is terminating the employee if he or she ultimately fails to live up to their expectations. Both discipline and termination of an employee can potentially invite a lawsuit that could have devastating consequences for your business. An experienced Massachusetts Labor and Employment Law attorney can take steps to protect your company’s rights and financial interests.
Avoiding Legal Problems With Employee Discipline
Employee discipline can involve anything from verbal and written warnings to coaching and retraining employees so they understand the rules they violated and learn how to avoid doing so in the future. In some companies, employee discipline can even go so far as to suspend workers (with or without pay) as punishment.
One of the main legal issues that arises with employee discipline is the accusation that an employee is being unfairly singled out. This, in turn, can support a charge that the company is engaging in some form of discrimination. Disciplining one employee for misconduct, while turning a blind eye to another employee who does the same thing, will put your business at risk of legal action.
These are a few ways to minimize the likelihood that routine discipline will lead to a lawsuit:
Policies and procedures manual. If you don’t already have one, your company needs a policies and procedures handbook that covers conduct and discipline. The policy should clearly state the types of behavior that are and are not acceptable, along with procedures the company can take to discipline misconduct. Usually, this includes laying out steps that grow in severity with additional infractions. An attorney can help your business draft a comprehensive policy and then put it into effect with all members of your organization.
Employee time off, paid and sick leave, and absence policies. Make sure that your company has rules in place concerning when and in what manner employees can take time off and use paid and sick leave. Also, your rules should clarify what happens when an employee is absent without cause. Federal and state laws give employees the right to take off in certain cases, such as pregnancy or military service. Your policies must be crafted with an eye towards these laws.
Consistent enforcement of the rules. As mentioned above, the problem is typically not with the policies themselves but with inconsistent application of them. Managers and others who are responsible for enforcing policies may play favorites or overlook some instances of misbehavior while punishing others. Your company policies should require managers to fairly enforce them and should provide disciplinary actions for those who fail to do so.
Training and retraining. Training your employees and managers on how to conduct themselves and enforce policies can help mitigate the risk of legal action. Unfortunately, not all companies take training seriously or invest sufficient resources in it. It requires a company-wide commitment to ensuring everyone in the business understands the rules. Training should also be seen as ongoing, meaning that periodic retraining may be necessary.
Employee contracts. Some employees work according to an employment contract. If this applies to your business, all of the above guidelines must be followed with the contract in mind. It may have been some time since you last reviewed or updated your employee contracts, or perhaps you would like to start using them. We can help draft contracts that include rules about employee conduct, discipline, and termination.
Possible Legal Issues With Employee Termination
If an employee simply refuses to stop engaging in misconduct or otherwise fails in his or her job, you may be forced to terminate that individual. This, even more so than discipline, can trigger legal problems for your company, including:
Allegations that you violated company policies. Ideally, you will already have policies and procedures in place that explain what types of behavior will result in discipline and that clarify the steps your business will take in terminating employees. However, if you, a manager, or someone else in your company disregarded those rules, it could be the basis of a discrimination lawsuit.
Discrimination. More to the point, you could be accused of engaging in statutory discrimination. For example, under federal law, it is illegal to fire an employee because of gender, race, disability, national origin, religion, age, and other factors. Additional state and local protections may apply. Discrimination allegations could expose your company to significant liability.
Retaliation. Both state and federal laws protect employees against retaliatory actions by their employers. Similar protections exist for whistleblowers. If an employee is terminated because he or she (for example) reported illegal workplace behavior, that employee may file a lawsuit.
What To Do If Your Business Is Sued
If your company ends up being the target of a lawsuit over employee discipline or termination, time is of the essence. The first thing you should do is retain experienced employment law counsel. Our firm represents companies ranging from small businesses to large corporations, so we’re equipped to advise your business and protect its bottom line.
To the extent you can, you should also begin gathering evidence relevant to the allegations against your company. This is best done in coordination with an attorney, however. Your lawyer can interview witnesses, obtain relevant documents, and take other steps (such as using formal discovery methods after a lawsuit is initiated) to gather evidence.
Of course, the best-case scenario is that your company won’t be sued at all. We can help your company with many of the strategies mentioned above such as adopting company policies and ensuring equal enforcement of them.
Contact Our Worcester Employee Discipline & Termination Attorney
If you have questions about employee discipline or termination, or a lawsuit has been filed, reach out to SederLaw. There may also be alternatives to actual or threatened legal action, such as alternative dispute resolution (ADR). We can discuss these and other options with you. Contact us today.