Three weeks ago a client called with an urgent question. When I could not locate the employee who was handling the client’s account, I visited his cubicle. I didn’t find the relevant materials on his desk, but his computer was on and hadn’t yet locked up. He had a file open on his desk marked “today’s best.” I opened it because the client had said he and our employee had been working on a proposal. I found pornography.
When the employee returned to his desk, I fired him on the spot. I tried to do it quietly but he insisted on yelling at me, and I lost it, saying things I shouldn’t have. Others heard me. That afternoon, I had IT search his computer. They found buried links to several porn sites
Yesterday this employee’s attorney, who happens to be his older brother, sent me a letter accusing me of illegally inspecting this employee’s computer as he had a reasonable right to privacy given I allowed him to password protect it. According to the letter, I set this employee up by intentionally counterfeiting dubious evidence leading to the employee’s humiliation and unjust termination.
The letter threatened a no holds barred lawsuit unless I agree to provide six months of severance wages, a positive letter of recommendation and a guarantee I’ll give a positive oral reference to any prospective employer.
Why does he think he can get away with this? And can he?
Any ex-employee can hire an attorney and allege misconduct even when none exists. Your employee may have free legal assistance from his brother and thus feel he has nothing to lose and much to gain. You don’t know their family dynamics and your former employer may have fed his brother-attorney a story and now his brother has jumped on his white horse to protect younger brother.
The letter smacks of blackmail. Unless you or your IT set up a sting operation, you caught an employee mis-using your company’s computer during working hours. Your ex-employee’s rights end where your right to fairly fire this employee begin – with a legitimate reason and based on credible evidence.
Your former employee alleges you generated bogus evidence. Disprove him by asking making ghost image of your former employee’s computer so that you can demonstrate how many porn downloading episodes occurred and when.
Consider this legal challenge a wake-up call in three areas.
You need to clarify legitimate computer usage and privacy rights in your company’s personnel policies. Given a company’s liability for inappropriate material downloaded to or transmitted from employer-owned equipment, your employees need to know authorized company officials can access all computers should the need arise. Your IT administrator needs access to and authorization for overriding individual passwords for legitimate reasons.
You need to learn how to ground yourself when handling a problematic situation or an employee pushes your buttons. Next time a situation such as this unfolds, ask IT to shut the computer down and escort the employee into your office for a meeting attended by you and your HR officer or another senior manager. When you sense your temper starting to flare, take a breath and regain control of yourself. You now need to do damage control with the employees who heard you lose it.
Finally, never fire on the spot. Instead, say “you’re suspended pending investigation.” Instruct the employee to leave the premises and immediately write an account of the entire incident and initiate a full, fair investigation. If you determine firing is warranted, you’ll have the ammunition you need to fight a suit.
What can you do now? Many extortion demands such as this wither when an employer says “enough, no.” Assuming you have evidence and acted fairly, the answer may be as simple as standing your ground and furnishing your proof.
© 2019, Lynne Curry
Lynne Curry writes a weekly column on workplace issues. She is author of “Solutions” and “Beating the Workplace Bully” and www.workplacecoachblog.com. Curry is now a Regional Director of Training and Business Consulting at Avitus Group. Send your questions to her at Lcurry@avitusgroup.com or follow her on twitter @lynnecurry10.