Could rude behavior have dragged out employee-handbook case?

10Sep13

A police officer is accused of misconduct, specifically, being intoxicated. His superiors think he’s lied to them during the investigation. They fire him.

He says that he’s entitled to procedural due process rights because of police department rules and regulations in the employee handbook. A judge disagrees, saying the handbook language doesn’t create a constitutionally protected property right, and dismisses the case. An Illinois appeals court affirms the dismissal.

At issue was whether handbook language identifying a probationary period where workers could be fired for any cause or no cause at all altered the employment-at-will status of this police officer.  The fired employee alleged that the probationary period meant that non-probationary employees could only be fired for cause. No, the judges said: Even in the absence of a catch-all provision for non-probationary employees that states they can be fired for no cause, the existence of a probationary period doesn’t overcome Illinois’ presumption of at-will employment.

As an HR exec, your takeaway would be to make sure any such ambiguity doesn’t exist, and that you haven’t accidentally negated at-will employment.

Management Lesson

There’s a management lesson here, too: It turns out that the committee deciding the employee’s fate told the employee that he could attend a hearing. He showed up with an attorney, expecting to be able to address the charges. He wasn’t given the chance – the committee met in executive session. He and his attorney waited outside a door and only afterward found out the decision: He was fired.

Is that high-handed rudeness what motivated the employee to pursue this case all the way to an appeals court?

Don’t take the chance: Make sure that there’s a single point of contact with an employee under investigation, so the employee doesn’t hear one story from HR and another from a supervisor. That may have been what happened here.

And most importantly, make sure that you stick with the procedures once they have been communicated to an employee.  In addition, be careful to have “employment-at-will” disclaimers throughout your employee handbook and understand that often use of the terms “probationary period” or “introductory period” can be held to alter the traditional employment-at-will status of your employees.

Sometimes people just need to think they got a fair hearing and were treated with dignity and respect throughout the process. A high-handed switch, like in this case, can knock a person’s nose out of joint.

Cite: Cromwell v. City of Momence, et al., No. 12-1541, 7th Cir.

Webinar info: Employee Handbooks: Do’s and Don’ts.

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