Terminating employees can be among the most difficult duties facing supervisors. You should do your best to avoid undue unemployment compensation claims and lawsuits by documenting properly with clear language.
Vagueness Can Lead to Confusion
School districts sometimes let people go “in the best interests of the district” without giving a specific reason. This language is allowed in Chapter 21 of the Texas Education Code. However, If you don’t give employees the reason they were discharged, they don’t know what to tell the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) when they file for unemployment compensation. This also leaves them wondering what the cause really was. Without a reason, a terminated employee may question if they were discriminated against based upon gender, race, or national origin. If this happens, you may have to defend the district’s position to a hearing officer for the TWC or face an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint and lawsuit.
Example of Unclear Termination
While a school district was reviewing an unemployment claim, they didn’t know why the claimant had been given benefits. A TWC investigator asked the claimant what the final incident was that led them to termination, and she replied that she didn’t know.
The claimant repeated what the school district wrote on her termination letter, which was that she was being let go “in the best interests of the district.” The letter continued “You are an at-will employee; and in accordance with policy, you may be discharged for any reason or no reason, provided that it is not a legally impermissible reason. Therefore, your employment with the district is terminated.”
While that reasoning may be true, it can sound vague or even suspicious to someone who has just lost a job. A claimant can use such unclear language to rightfully or wrongly accuse an employer of terminating them for an unacceptable reason. It is easier to state specific reasons from the beginning than try to explain what you meant after the fact.
In this example, the district didn’t help the matter when they responded by stating “the claimant is an at-will employee and was terminated for misconduct.” If you don’t tell the employee why they are being discharged, they can’t tell the TWC. It is better to get in front of an issue than have it appear later that you are changing your story. It is easier to defend a UC claim or a lawsuit if there is clear and consistent documentation leading up to the termination. If you terminated someone for attendance issues, say so. And be specific about it, too. Try something like “the claimant was discharged for five days of no-call, no show.” This goes for almost any reason for termination.
The main point is that a district as an employer should explain exactly why it fired an employee. This should also apply to any documentation made prior to termination. If you are reporting an employee for using vulgar language, you should write out what they said. While that may seem a little over the top, you are making a record of what was said. Accuracy is important in documentation, whether it’s for bad language, unpleasant facts, or a no-call, no show situation.
It is up to the employer to prove that they fired an employee for misconduct. Clear language can pay off by being able to successfully contest an unemployment claim or help to avoid a lawsuit. Contact James Ezell, the UC Attorney for the TASB Risk Management Fund Unemployment Compensation program, at 800.482.7276, x 2857 or firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on defending against UC claims.