Ways to Avoid Defamation When Disciplining Employees

Every employer has the right to create a pleasant and productive workplace. Yet this goal can be elusive when a worker acts unethically or behaves poorly toward others. If the behavior was grossly unethical or offensive and the person was an “at-will” employee, you can usually fire him on the spot. However, some misconduct claims must be thoroughly investigated.

General principles to bear in mind when disciplining employees

If immediate firing isn’t appropriate, you must handle all investigatory matters in a private manner. You should also only inform those with a formal “need to know” regarding specific information you are learning. Always make sure to act in a non-discriminatory manner. You can never let anyone go in a way that violates their civil rights or unjustly defames them.

Here are some suggested steps your business should take while resolving problems with difficult employees.

Responsible ways to discipline workers

  1. Create a written policy that states how your office will interact with employees who are accused of wrongful behavior. While you should be consistent in taking certain steps, you must clearly state that your office always reserves the right to immediately fire at-will employees when circumstances justify such actions. When an exempt employee is involved, try to provide warnings and always listen to their side of the story. It’s a good idea to place this policy in an employee handbook and to reference it upon first hiring all employees – and during all periodic work evaluations;
  2. Investigate all accusations, especially when immediate firing isn’t necessary. Be sure to handle all interviews in a private setting, stressing the confidential nature of the process. If there is written or documented proof of wrongdoing, obtain copies of the materials;
  3. Create a separate investigation file for the accused employee. You should also create notes in the person’s regular personnel file – making sure only a small number of employees can review either folder. In very rare circumstances, it may be necessary to hire an outside group to handle the investigation for you. Your Houston employment law attorney can fully explain when hiring outside investigators may be necessary;
  4. Create a clear plan for each employee’s disciplinary investigation. Avoid making accusations or labeling someone as a “thief.” Let the person know that you are investigating the claims. When meeting with the individual, always take notes and have at least one other staff member present as a witness. You may want to ask the employee to sign a statement, indicating awareness of the investigation.  In order to get an employee to sign a form, you may need to note in it that his/her signature does not constitute any admission regarding wrongful behavior – only that the person knows certain claims are being investigated. Be sure to listen carefully to any defense claims the employee may offer – but do not let any meeting become confrontational. If tempers flare, note that you will reschedule the appointment for a later time;
  5. Do not publicize the investigation. Only share limited information about it with those who have a “need to know” regarding it;
  6. Once a decision is reached regarding discipline, advise the employee. Make sure your decision is based on fully objective and reasonable grounds – and note them in your files. Document what you’ve decided to do in the regular personnel file – and reference the separate investigative file where all detailed notes are kept. Do not allow anyone access to the main investigative file who doesn’t have a right to see it. Be sure to keep all investigative files for a lengthy time period in case future lawsuits are brought against your company;
  7. If you decide to terminate an employee, do so in an orderly fashion. Allow the person to gather together all personal possessions before leaving the building in a private fashion. If the fired employee was fired due to dishonesty – or any violent or inappropriate behavior – you may want security to escort the person off the premises. To protect the fired employee’s privacy concerns (and to avoid defamatory actions), you may want the exit to occur when few other employees are present;
  8. Do not share details about any firing with other employees. Unless there was documented criminal activity that all personnel may need to know about, you have a duty to maintain privacy regarding the exact reasons why you chose to fire an employee.

Always remember that you cannot discipline an employee for taking lawful advantage of any state or federal right. This can include taking time off under the Family Medical Leave Act after you’ve approved the temporary departure – or taking a military or pregnancy disability leave.

Additional behaviors to avoid when disciplining employees

  • Never jump to conclusions about any claim. Don’t allow yourself to be greatly swayed by reports made by one or two individuals. Be sure to speak with all key witnesses and interview the employee concerned – to hear his/her perspective on what happened;
  • Always be/remain reasonable and flexible. Don’t ever over-penalize an employee for a minor infraction. Also, if you’re having to fire a more senior, exempt employee, make sure you have fully documented all proven reasons (or “just cause”) as to why the employee must leave;
  • Seriously consider documenting verbal warnings. While this may not be necessary, it’s usually a wise move. One way you can document them is to send yourself an email, noting in general terms (using a computer at work) why you had to verbally discipline an employee on a specific date;
  • During regular employee evaluations, be sure to note any disciplinary actions taken and how they’ve been resolved. Always have the employee sign the evaluation, noting that the person recalls all that’s happened and how all situations have been resolved;
  • Avoid telling an employee after being disciplined that you’re sure the person is likely to have a bright, long future with the company. A court might later view this type of language as reasonable proof that you were creating a new employment contract, one providing some type of guaranteed or continuing employment – as opposed to the at-will status the employee once had; and
  • Don’t punish workers for trying to improve working conditions or wages during breaks or at other times when “off the clock.” Rights like these are normally protected under the federal National Labor Relations Act.

If you’re concerned about how to handle any employee discipline or firing issue, please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys. We can provide legal advice based on the specific circumstances that you relate to us — and help you decide when you may need to hire outside investigators to handle a specific claim. We can also draft professional language for describing your employee discipline policy in your employment handbook.

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