When is “I’d like to shoot my supervisor” Not Cause for Termination?
Fair Practice: Dealing with Threats in the Workplace
Some supervisors might think it would be an easy win for the employer to terminate an employee for making statements that seem threatening towards management. However, a recent court decision has shown that employers should be aware of all the facts surrounding an employee’s statement before deciding to take action.
In a recent case, an employer fired an employee for violating its zero-tolerance policy on violence and threats of violence after receiving a doctor’s report stating that during a fitness for duty exam, the employee said that he had “homicidal feelings” and had thought about “shooting his supervisor.” While these statements seemed to be reason enough to terminate employment at first, there was more to the employee’s story.
The employee was a black man that had worked at this facility for 28 years. He claimed that after his new white supervisor was hired, he began to have problems at work for the first time since he began his employment. When the employee was disciplined for what he described as “mistakes made by white employees,” he filed an EEO complaint for racial discrimination. Shortly thereafter, he was ordered to the fitness for duty exam where he made the threatening remarks. The results of the exam were sent to the employer and the employee was terminated. A second EEO complaint was then filed by the employee charging that his termination of employment was in retaliation for his recent EEO complaint. When this case reached the court, the employer moved to dismiss the employee’s law suit at the summary judgment phase, arguing that there was no need to go to trial because the relevant facts were not in dispute.
The court rejected the employer’s motion to dismiss and sided with the employee for three reasons. First, the employer failed to read the entire doctor’s report. The doctor made it clear in the report that he did not believe that the employee was a threat. In fact, the doctor recommended that the employee be put back to work in a different area after a brief time off.
Second, the court noted that the employee did not own a firearm.
Finally, the court noted that the employer had an inconsistent record of enforcing its zero tolerance policy, citing evidence of white workers at the facility who had threatened violence in the past and did not have their employment terminated.
As a result, the case was sent to a jury for a determination of the facts as to whether the termination of employment was in retaliation to the employee’s EEO complaint.
The Bottom Line
Supervisors should have enough training to understand that the facts in this case, and others like it, may lead to a finding of retaliation. Experienced HR, EEO or Legal professionals would have seen the pitfalls in this case and could have saved the employer considerable time and expense. In addition, this type of case should raise the attention of EEO and HR employees as to the managerial competence and motivation of the supervisor.
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