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Could your company’s employee discipline policies be a liability?

On Behalf of | Nov 18, 2021 | Employment and Labor Law

If your business has employees, you will inevitably need to discipline some of them for performance or conduct issues. Before this happens, it is important for your company to have clear disciplinary policies in place and to ensure that everyone in leadership positions understands how to comply with them.

Alaska is an employment-at-will state, which generally means that employers can choose to terminate workers for any legal reason or for no reason at all. Unfortunately, fired employees sometimes claim they were terminated for illegal reasons, such as race or gender bias or in retaliation for reporting sexual harassment. By putting clear disciplinary policies in place and following them, you can shield your business from these false claims by disgruntled former employees.

Tip #1: Put disciplinary actions in writing

Employees are often fired for repeated problems, such as chronic lateness, and the issue is likely to first be addressed with verbal warnings. The person issuing those verbal warnings needs to keep a record of when they were given and why. The record could be as simple as an email to human resources on the day of each offense. If you then fire the employee for chronic lateness (or some similar reason), you have a clear record of the problematic behavior.

Tip #2: Include specific details in documentation

Even if your company has a policy to put disciplinary actions or performance reviews in writing, you need to ensure that they include specific details. You might think it is sufficient to say that a worker has a “bad attitude.” It is better to provide examples, such as problematic statements the worker has made to other employees, incidents where the worker was rude to customers or times when the worker refused to comply with management requests.

Tip #3: Provide proof that employees were notified of problems

Because Alaska is an employment-at-will state, you could fire an employee immediately after a single offense. But many companies prefer a progressive discipline program that gives employees a certain number of “strikes,” or puts them on a performance improvement plan.

If you choose to go this route, you should be able to prove that the employee received your written warnings and other communications. This could include asking the employee to sign a written warning or performance improvement plan. They don’t have to agree with what’s in it. They just need to indicate that they received it. If you send such materials over company email, you can typically prove that the email was read, which indicates that the employee received it.

Why these procedures matter

A former employee’s lawsuit against your business may be frivolous, but that doesn’t mean it is harmless. Even if it is eventually dismissed, responding to a lawsuit will cost your company money and time, and the existence of the lawsuit could damage the company’s reputation.

Taking a smart approach to employee discipline makes it much harder for any frivolous claims to withstand legal scrutiny.