The Psychology behind Wrongful Termination Claims or Rodney Dangerfield was Right

Employees who “get no respect” are future plaintiffs, particularly when they’re being fired.  In fact,  the results of structured interviews with 996 recently fired or laid-off workers (Administrative Science Quarter, September 2000) found that the way an employee was treated at the time of termination had nearly twice as much effect as any other variable in predicting who would sue for wrongful termination and who would not; less that half of one percent of the respondents who felt they had been treated with “very much dignity” at their time of dismissal filed claims in comparison to 15 percent of those who said they had “not at all” received respectful and dignified treatment at the time of termination.

What employees were told when they were let go was also important.  Less than 2 percent of terminated employees who were given an accurate and honest explanation of why they were being fired filed wrongful termination claims.  In contrast almost 20% of employees who were given no explanation (or this was the first time they were hearing it) filed a claim.

I Don’t Deserve to Be Treated This Way

Looking at the reasons employees file wrongful termination lawsuits (and why they don’t) offers us some insight into how our employees expect to be treated while they’re still working for us.  Basically, our employees want us to be FAIR.  In particular, they feel entitled to two things from their managers – interpersonal sensitivity and accountability.  In other words, employees believe they deserve to be treated politely and respectfully (regardless of the circumstances) and they expect truthful explanations for actions and decisions that that affect them personally.

There are some good psychological reasons why our employees want to be treated this way.  For example, research has consistently shown that people who are treated with dignity emerge from experiences – even painful or negative ones – with a sense that they have been treated fairly. And being treated fairly helps us not take the negative outcome quite so personally; when we’re disciplined for something we’ve done, we can handle it.  When we’re treated like a bad or insignificant person, it’s a different ball game.

Message from Jurors:  Don’t Make a Bad Situation Worse

Jurors apparently agree. In my experience, jurors in employment lawsuits are much more motivated to punish an employer whom they believe has been rude or insensitive during a tough time they are to reward a plaintiff whom they like or feel sorry for.  In fact, jurors don’t even have to like, respect, or empathize with a plaintiff if they feel indignant about how an employer handled a termination, layoff or discipline decision.

The good news is that the employer (and, in particular, the immediate supervisor) who treats employees fairly throughout the employment process  has a great advantage not only in terms of reducing the likelihood of employees filing claims, but in defending the ones that are filed.

The Bottom Line

While no one is happy about being terminated, it’s the way it’s handled that most often gets the litigation ball rolling.  Employees who are fired without warning, who are, without cause, marched out the door by security, or who learn about it through a nasty email are employees with an axe to grind.  And there are plenty of lawyers to help them grind it.  “It’s not FAIR” is the battle cry of the legal war zone.

Of course, not all mistreatment is intentional.  Few managers are trained in how to communicate around discipline and termination and, as a result of their own discomfort, may come across as emotionally uncaring or cold (or take the chicken’s way out and communicate it from a distance).  Let’s hope employers wise up to the fact that a manager who doesn’t know how to deliver bad news – a skill that can be easily learned – can be as detrimental to the workplace as one who makes bad decisions.

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