Even Great Employees Can Be Fired for a Single Mistake
We like to think that employers take an employee’s whole record into account when making a decision as to whether the employee should lose his or her job. But sometimes just one mistake can be enough to end an employment relationship, which can be absolutely devastating for the employee.
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A Recent Example of an Employee Losing Her Job Over One Mistake
The Catoosa World reports that Wells Middle School recently fired an experienced teacher in Catoosa, Oklahoma. Heather Cagle was both a math and yearbook teacher, and she had worked at the school for a decade. There is no indication that she had any problems through her 10 years of employment with the school. In fact, she lost her position despite 50 supporters showing up to the hearing where school authorities made the decision. So why did she lose her job? One well-intentioned mistake.
Cagle decided that her yearbook students deserved a reward. So she decided to take them to Walmart to get some snacks. This is where things went a bit wrong. First of all, she had not gotten permission from the students’ parents to take them off campus. Secondly, she opted to transport the 11 students in her Honda Accord. Two of the students wound up riding in the trunk. No one was injured, but the damage to Cagle’s career was done. The school board voted 4-1 to fire her.
Since Ms. Cagle was a teacher, it is extremely likely that she was a member of a teacher’s union and was covered by an employment contract. Usually such contracts lay out what types of conduct an employee can be fired for and what process must be followed in order to terminate an employee. Unfortunately, most employees in most fields do not work with such contracts in place. Instead they are what is called “at-will employees.”
What At-Will Employment Means for Job Security
Most American workers are at-will employees. This means that their employers can fire them at any time for any reason without any warning at all. Even one simple mistake, or even no mistake at all, is enough to lose a job. This doctrine is often defended by saying that it also gives employees the right to resign at any time, but in reality this is not a fair trade off. If an employer loses an employee, it can just hire a new one. However, in bad economic times, a fired employee can lose his or her house, belongings, or even children if he or she cannot provide for them.
There are some limited exceptions to this policy. These exceptions include:
● Some statutes, both state and federal, provide protections. Laws like the Civil Rights Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act make certain types of employment discrimination illegal. There are also statutes in some states that go beyond basic anti-discrimination and also include protection for whistleblowers or employees who refuse to engage in illegal activity.
● Some states have what is called a “public policy exception” to at-will employment, which means that an employer cannot fire an employee if doing so would violate the state’s public policy. This is how many whistleblowers are protected.
● Some states have what is called an “implied contract exception” to at-will employment. If this exception applied, then an employer cannot fire an employee when there is an implied employment contract, even if there is no express contract. This is a difficult exception to prove. It usually comes up where an employee handbook or manual indicates that an employee will only be terminated for certain reasons. The idea is that the employee should be able to rely on these company policies.
● Finally, some states have what is called a “covenant of good faith and fair dealing exception.” This is only recognized in a small number of states. This sort of exception varies between the states it is used in, but it basically means that employers have to treat employees fairly and cannot fire a person for malicious reasons.
Tell Us What You Think
Do you know someone who was a great employee but got fired over one mistake? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.
Dan Kalish is a partner and founder of HKM Employment Lawyers (www.hkm.com), an employment law firm that represents individuals nationwide. A graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law School, Dan frequently speaks and writes about issues related to employment law on hkm.com/employmentblog.