Managers' Mistakes That Spark Lawsuits: Part 1

In the last few years, employees are suing their employers more and more, and the financial stakes seem to be higher and higher. Sometimes these lawsuits have merit, and sometimes they don't. In either case, defending against a lawsuit costs time and money for the employer.

Most lawsuits are not triggered by great injustices. Instead, simple management mistakes and perceived slights start the snowball of discontent rolling downhill to the courtroom. This is the first of a two-part series dealing with mistakes that managers make that can cost their employer in a lawsuit. These mistakes harm the employer's credibility in court:

Poor Documentation

Most discrimination cases are not won with "smoking gun" evidence. Typically, they are proven circumstantially, often through documents or statements made by managers. Documents, including e-mails, can help an employee show discriminatory intent. The lesson � always speak and write as if your comments will be held up to a jury some day.

Not Knowing the Employer's Policies and Procedures

Courts expect managers and supervisors to know their company's policies and procedures. If a manager admits ignorance, legal experts say that juries typically view that as purposeful, not forgetfulness.

It is critical that managers know their company's policies. Don't make decisions based on a vague memory of a policy. Always double check it or check with Human Resources before taking action.

Inflated Appraisals

Performance appraisals are one of the most important forms of documentation, but managers sometimes inflate the rating for various reasons. Often, it is the sense of not wanting to come across as the "bad guy." If a manager later tries to cite "poor performance" for that same person's termination or demotion, those overly positive appraisals create credibility concerns for a judge or jury. The lesson � Be direct, honest, and consistent.

Shrugging Off Complaints

Turning a blind eye to employees' complaints of unfairness or perceived discriminatory actions is always a loser. Comments like "I'm not a baby sitter" or "boys will be boys" will hurt employee morale and jeopardize your standing in court.


Interview Errors

It's pretty easy to answer the question of why a person was hired. However, managers often run into trouble when they have to answer, "Why did you reject certain other candidates?" That is because rejection decisions typically are not well documented, and the decision-maker may not recall the reasons later.

When interviewing applicants, stay away from any question that does not focus on the central issue � how well would this person perform the job he or she has applied for? Never ask about age, race, marital status, children, day care plans, religion, health status, or political affiliation.

Changing Your Story

If an organization changes its reasoning for making an adverse employment decision (e.g. firing, discipline, demotion, etc.) in midstream, its credibility is shot. Be straight with employees from the start about reasons for discipline. You can be tactful without sugarcoating your comments.

SESCO Management Consultants is available to assist with your human resource issues. You may contact us by phone at 423-764-4127 or by email at sesco@sescomgt.com .