Finance News & Insights

Did disrespectful emails justify firing her?


Everybody’s been there – in the heat of the moment you fire off an email that you wish you never hit send on. But is that enough to get you fired? Or to fire someone in your finance department?

It can be, depending on the circumstances. That’s what a U.S. Circuit court recently ruled. And there’s learning for every manager and employee out there.

Here are the specifics of this case and what you need to do to protect both your company and yourself in a similar situation.

Had always received positive reviews

The employee in this case had never been considered troublesome. In fact, she had a history of receiving positive performance reviews in her position as ultrasound technician at an Illinois hospital.

Then she started sending emails to her supervisor that were considered to be insubordinate.

The company acted fast: They sent both written warnings and held face-to-face meetings about her “e-behavior.” But the emails continued.

Ultimately the company fired the technician. And she quickly brought suit, claiming both age discrimination (she was 55) and a hostile work environment.

Fortunately, the employer came out on top.

Not only was the ex-employee able to offer sufficient evidence to support her own claims, the court agreed that the emails were perceived as “negative, unprofessional and disrespectful towards her managers and peers.”

And that meant the company was justified in letting her go.

Avoiding a similar sticky situation

There’s no denying that email tends to be a more informal communications medium.

And that’s where some people get into trouble.

Behind the cloak of the keyboard some people feel emblazoned to say things they wouldn’t consider saying face to face.  Plus, it’s often difficult to discern tone in an email, so even a message not intended to be flip or insubordinate can come off that way.

The employer in this case handled the situation the right way. By following its lead and adopting a few other strategies to help prevent situations like these in the first place, you can keep Finance protected:

  1. Make sure staffers understand what’s professional and what’s not. Few people receive training on how to write a business email. Those are guidelines everyone should follow not only when emailing with customers, suppliers, etc., but with internal colleagues as well. It couldn’t hurt to guide staffers in the right direction: steer clear of humor (often doesn’t translate), ease up on the exclamation points and consider waiting 20 minutes before sending any email that was written in the heat of the moment.
  2. Treat email misbehaviors just like other types of transgressions. If one coworker said something insubordinate to another in the breakroom, you’d act fast. Same goes for email issues.  You want to call the unacceptable behavior to the person’s attention, and then follow the usual warning policy you would with other behavioral problems.
  3. Keep the papertrail. Email does most of the work for you on this one! A written record is being drawn up each time another email is sent. So urge your finance supervisors to save anything they find questionable. If an issue comes up later, having copies of those emails could just prevent a costly legal headache.
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