Employers that offer inconsistent reasons for an employee's termination could undermine their defenses to employment claims.
In a recent case illustrating the importance of being mindful of the process of termination, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals allowed a pregnancy discrimination claim to go to trial because the employer offered multiple and inconsistent reasons for the employee's termination. Hitchcock v. Angel Corps Inc., 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 11761 (7th Cir. 2013).
In this case, the employee worked for a home health care agency and was terminated after informing her supervisor that she was pregnant. She sued her employer for pregnancy discrimination, and the employer responded by offering several inconsistent reasons for her termination: (1) that she had completed an assessment of a deceased client, (2) that she compromised the health and safety of the client and (3) that she performed a deficient assessment of a potential client.
The appellate court found that the inconsistency in these explanations amounted to "ever-evolving justifications that may cause a reasonable juror to wonder whether Angel Corps can ever get its story straight."
According to Darrell VanDeusen, a leading employment attorney in Baltimore, Maryland, when it comes to terminations, "the best advice for HR professionals is to make sure you know the true and legitimate reasons for a termination decision, tell the employee the true reason for termination and don't change your story later."
Equally important is to not make termination decisions in haste, without first reviewing personnel files and written disciplinary warnings. Additionally, HR professionals should be aware of inconsistencies or disagreements within the organization, which will almost certainly influence fact-finders like judges, jurors, mediators or arbitrators in employment disputes.
Where the goal of terminating employees is to shore up business practices, curb employee misconduct or improve customer relations, inconsistencies of this nature are extremely counterproductive for employers and could actually create new problems where they didn't exist previously.