Favorite Firing: “I’ve Hired a Murderer!”


asglassOne morning about twenty-five years ago I sat in my law office. I took a call from an HR manager who was a regular client of mine.

“Sara, I think I’ve hired a murderer!” she said with panic in her voice.

“OK, Roxie, tell me what happened,” I replied, trying to keep my voice lawyer-calm.

Roxie explained that an employee had come to see her about another employee, a shipping employee who worked on the loading dock at her company. According to the report, the shipping employee had been convicted of murder and served time in a state prison. Roxie hadn’t talked to the dockworker yet, but she had pulled his personnel file.

His application had left the space blank where it asked “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” The hiring staff had either not noticed or had not asked about the missing information. At the time, this company didn’t do background checks beyond reference checking. But company policy stated that they didn’t hire any ex-felons.

“You’ll have to talk to him,” I said. “Ask whether the information is true. Then let’s talk again.”

“You want me to talk to a murderer?”

“Has he shown any sign of violence at work?” I asked.

“No. He’s been a decent employee.”

“Just have Security standing by,” I suggested.

Apply_HandThe Facts: Roxie talked to the employee, who admitted he had been convicted of murder. He hadn’t wanted to tell the company about his felonious past, so he deliberately left that part of the application blank. He had been a little surprised that no one asked him about the missing answer, but he was glad to have received the job.

Roxie and I discussed the situation, and she deliberated with other company managers. They decided to terminate the man’s employment. I told her there was some risk, as the man was African-American, and could file a claim of race discrimination. But at the time, the law was pretty clear that if a company had a blanket rule that no felons of any race could be employed, they had a strong defense. Although I told her they needed to check their applications more carefully and raise issues before making their hiring decisions.

The Moral: There are several morals to this story. Some applied twenty-five years ago, and some have developed in the time since this incident occurred.

1. Get hiring data before the person is hired

If you have certain rules that can disqualify applicants, be sure to ask about these issues before hiring someone. Ask about the qualifications of each and every applicant. Blanks in employment applications about qualifications are not acceptable, and the burden will be on the employer to show that the rule is justified, if you don’t even ensure that the forms are filled out correctly.

2. Apply the same qualifications to all applicants

If you have employment qualifications, they should apply to everyone. Don’t let some applicants slip through with lower qualifications than what you have said are required. And certainly don’t vary the qualifications based on an applicant’s race, sex, or other protected classification.

3. Address discrepancies immediately

If you find a discrepancy in an employee’s application, whether before the person is hired or after, address it as soon as you can. Provide an opportunity for the applicant or employee to provide the missing information, if it can be fixed.

If the person has already been hired and the discrepancy can’t be remedied—such as this employee’s prior conviction—you have a difficult decision to make, particularly if the employee has performed adequately. How can you show the missing qualification is job-related, if the employee has performed well? However, if you don’t fire the person, then you risk the validity of your qualifications.

4. Stay on top of federal, state, and local hiring regulations.

Although criminal convictions were an acceptable reason to weed out applicants twenty-five years ago, the EEOC now takes the position that employers cannot have a blanket rule against hiring felons, because minorities have higher conviction rates than whites. The criminal conviction must be related to the job for it to disqualify an applicant. A conviction of fraud would probably disqualify a bookkeeper, but probably would not disqualify the dockworker.

Thus, the risk today of firing the murderer is much greater than it was twenty years ago. Some employers would take the position that any violent crime is a disqualification for any position. Whether the EEOC and your local agencies would accept such a policy is uncertain. Know how judges in the state and federal courts where your business is located have ruled.

Have you ever been surprised by information missing from an applicant’s records?

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