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A Little Respect: Why to Channel Your Inner Aretha Franklin When You Fire Someone


A few years ago, I was at a meeting negotiating the terms of an employment separation. The plaintiff clearly was upset, sitting ramrod straight and bristling with anxiety.

To start the meeting, I asked him to tell his story. He poured out the tale of his dismissal, ending slumped on the table. I looked at him and explained that I regretted that he had that experience, that I wanted to fully understand his position and that my client and I were committed to trying to find a solution that both sides would find acceptable. He returned my look, shook himself, and said, “That’s the first time anyone on behalf of the company indicated that they cared about me or about what I thought.”

From there, we conducted the negotiations in a much less hostile manner, resulting in significant saving of time and money for my client, the defendant, who avoided going to court. If the employer had shown the employee a little respect during his employment and, just as importantly during the termination process, it’s possible it could have avoided any kind of claim.

Avoid three employer mistakes plaintiff’s attorneys love to see:

  1. Failure to terminate employees respectfully. Perhaps nothing is as upsetting to employees as being terminated under circumstances where they had no idea that the termination would be forthcoming and in a manner that they consider to be disrespectful. It is essential to properly document personnel issues and adequately communicate performance problems respectfully and specifically early on. As for the second issue, terminating employees in a public manner, or “taking the bait” and engaging in destructive discussions with employees, is a prescription for a lawsuit. Employees who believe that they have been humiliated are more likely to file claims.
  2. Failure to understand why employees file claims. Many employment claims are preventable. In my experience, most employment claims are filed because of the perception that an employee has been mistreated or disrespected. Plaintiffs’ attorneys find a label or legal theory to attach to this level of unhappiness, but at the core of the claim is an abiding sense that individuals have been mistreated. Often, this is a function of employers failing to follow their own policies and procedures, failing to properly define and communicate expectations at the outset of employment, failing to spend the necessary time to determine why certain employees have been successful in their organizations and others have not, and failing to treat employees consistently.
  3. Failure to take employee complaints seriously. The timely investigation of claims of harassment and discrimination, in particular, is critical in order to preserve important employer defenses to such claims if they are actually filed. Employees who believe that their complaints are consistently ignored will have little hesitation in contacting an attorney to evaluate their case, make a demand for payment, and/or file a claim.

The good news is that employers have an excellent chance of avoiding these claims. If CEOs follow Aretha Franklin’s advice and give their employees a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T, they’ll find out what it means to them: a reduction in employee claims and savings of time and money dealing with lawsuits.

Marc Engel is an employment attorney and at Lerch, Early & Brewer who counsels clients on how to comply with state and federal employment statutes and wage hour laws. For more information on successful strategies for managing employees and preventing employment claims, contact Marc at (301) 657-0184 or



This content is for your information only and is not intended to constitute legal advice. Please consult your attorney before acting on any information contained here.


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