While I have built my career representing employees in employment disputes, I still represent a handful of employers who do not have the revenue to support a human resources department. Many small employers face occasional employment issues that require a certain amount of expertise before making a business decision and I am happy I can fill the void for these hard-working folks.
One of the hardest decisions that an employer can face is terminating an employee. Even where an employee is underperforming, in lots of small businesses, subordinates and co-workers are like family. Letting someone go can be painful for all.
I had a client contact me recently because there was some tension among co-workers at his successful and growing business. I have watched as his business has grown and he has navigated the varied issues that often confront a business that is growing. For example, it is often difficult to find a good group of employees that can execute a business owner’s vision.
However, I have seen that this business owner has good leadership and he has been able to take a varied workforce and mold it into a unit that continues to execute and perform. Now and then though a poor employee comes in and it can be disruptive.
He had watched a new employee perform well and he promoted that employee to a position with greater responsibility. However, when the employee moved into that new position, his head got a bit too large and he became a bit of a tyrant when dealing with his new subordinates. He was spoken to and told to take it down a notch, but the counseling did not seem to resonate.
He continued on the path of destruction until finally a handful of subordinates and co-workers had enough. They got into a verbal dispute. Unfortunately, one of the subordinates used a slur when arguing. At that point, the supervisor ended the conversation and left the scene. The subordinate gave a moment to cool off and then apologized.
The subordinate had been a long-time worker with an effective work record. He was the glue that held his department together. He definitely screwed up, but his outburst was brought on by the behavior of the supervisor who had been warned a few times to tone down his behavior.
The supervisor went to the owner and argued that the work environment had become hostile. The owner thought that the supervisor was making the environment hostile. The sticky part was that the supervisor was the victim of the slur.
So the owner called me to find out what he could do. Before the blowup happened he was considering either demoting the supervisor or terminating him. Now he was concerned that if he took any action he might be sued for accepting a discriminatory work environment based on the slur.
I told him that he needed to bring the employees in who were engaged in the dispute that led to the slur and counsel them on hostile work environment behavior. The worker who uttered the slur needed to be disciplined and warned that if it happened again he would be terminated.
Still the employer wanted to let the supervisor go. I told him that he had to do what was best for his business and if that meant terminating the employee then he should do so. However, I warned him that it could lead to a lawsuit, and he had to factor that prospect into his decision-making.