When illegal termination cases and similar kinds of employment disputes reach the courts, the proceedings often turn into a parade of mutual recriminations. The employee believes there was unfair treatment by the employer. The employer feels it did everything it reasonably could to help the employee become a productive worker. In many cases, the court's final decision may hinge on the existence—or non-existence—of written documentation pertaining to the facts of the matter.
Good documentation policies can save the employer and the employee a lot of trouble in the long run—both in the workplace and in the courtroom.
Employee Discipline Forms
With many businesses, particularly smaller ones, the process for reprimanding employees about misconduct tends to be very informal. For example, an employee might get called into a manager's office for yet another friendly reminder that the t-shirts he likes to wear in the workplace are in violation of the “business casual” dress code.
Still, it is widely agreed among experts in workplace management that the best policy is to document everything, preferably in a standardized employee discipline form. Why?
- It allows the company to document the exact time and date of the meeting.
- It allows the company to record exactly what was discussed and agreed to in the meeting, so there is no risk of later confusion.
- It allows the employee to “sign off” on the matter and provide acknowledgement of the issues discussed. (Note that this is also an opportunity for an employee to express any disagreement in a written rebuttal that can document their side of the story.)
This sort of practice is useful for correcting all levels of employee infractions, from inappropriate dress to inappropriate office conduct (e.g., foul language, insubordination, harassment, excessive tardiness, etc.).
Many companies use employee discipline forms as part of a larger progressive discipline policy in which the punishment increases with each infraction. When followed properly, a progressive discipline policy can be a highly effective defense against unlawful termination claims by employees. Conversely, when a progressive discipline policy is not followed or is inconsistently applied, it can give an aggrieved employee further evidence to support a claim of illegal termination.
Employee Evaluation Forms
Another common type of employment document is the employee evaluation form. This document, usually given to each employee once or twice a year, provides the worker with an individualized assessment and summary of their contributions to the workplace. Often it “grades” the employee's efforts in various categories (e.g., teamwork, meeting deadlines) on a numerical or alphabetical scale.
Like the employee discipline form, a properly conducted employee evaluation can help an employer avert wrongful termination claims, but a contrived or skewed employee evaluation can help an employee to support a claim of illegal dismissal.
Employee Documentation in the Courts
Employee discipline and evaluation forms are just two types of documents frequently used for boosting the performance of company personnel. These kinds of documents can also play a very important role in workplace disputes that come before the courts. What follows are a handful of examples where wronged employees may use workplace documentation (or its absence) in court against their employer.
- Contracted work duration: The state of Georgia follows the doctrine of at-will employment, but the existence of a contract thatexplicitly promises a specified work duration (e.g., six months) may constitute an exception. If a company fires an contracted employee before the conclusion of a guaranteed employment term, the employer must generally be able to produce valid documentation supporting the decision to terminate.
- Policy violation + Discrimination: If an employee is fired for a policy violation, the employee may be able to successfully sue for unlawful termination if there is documented evidence that others at the company were not terminated for the same infraction and the decision to terminate was based on a protected issue (e.g., race, religion, gender, age, disability, national origin, or pregnancy).
- Bogus performance evaluation + Discrimination: An employee's evaluation form may bolster an unlawful termination claim if the document shows that the worker received good scores related to the reason for termination and the decision to terminate was, in fact, based on a protected issue (e.g., race, religion, gender, age, disability, national origin, or pregnancy). For instance, if an employee who is claiming discrimination can show the court an “excellent” rating for performance, such evidence is likely to disprove an employer's allegations about the employee's incompetence.
These are just a few kinds of cases that may turn on whether an employee or an employer has thorough documentation. The absence of valid documentation can seriously compromise a company's ability to defend itself against an unlawful termination claim. Likewise, the absence of good documentation on the part of an employee may weaken the employee's claim of illegal termination. If you believe that your employer has terminated you unlawfully, please contact Barrett & Farahany, LLP for a free consultation.