Sometimes you have to fire your "star." Here's why.

Often, when I get a call about a termination, the employee's boss has been primed to fire for weeks and is at wit's end by the time I hear about it. My job, along with that of the Human Resources representative who called me, is to talk the boss down, at least long enough to provide fair warning to the employee and to document the problems.

But every once in a blue moon, I will get the other type of termination call -- a "star" has been discovered to be a sexual harasser, or an embezzler, or someone who otherwise has no business being employed. On these calls, I get the feeling that the employer would love nothing more than for me to ask for more documentation, or a few more warnings, or say the whole matter is overblown -- anything but "yeah, you need to fire."

I thought about that after reading that waitress Dayna Morales was fired last week, about a month after she was discovered to have committed a big internet hoax. If you're not familiar with the story, here is a summary:

Ms. Morales, a Marine Corps veteran and a lesbian, was a waitress at a restaurant in New Jersey. About a month ago, she went on Facebook and posted a photo of a receipt from a customer showing no tip and a note saying that the customer disapproved of her lifestyle. Cyberspace was outraged, and many people sent sympathy donations to Ms. Morales, who said that she would donate the money to the Wounded Warrior Project.

But then the family who had allegedly stiffed her appeared on the local TV news with a copy of the credit card receipt, which showed that they in fact had left her a 20 percent tip and had not put any note on the receipt. The amount charged on their credit card statement also indicated a 20 percent tip. In other words, Ms. Morales seems to have made this story up. And then the Wounded Warrior Project said that they had no record of having received any donations from Ms. Morales. There were also allegations that Ms. Morales had lied about aspects of her military service and her upbringing.

(Ms. Morales has now refunded some, if not all, of the donations.)

All this came out quite a while ago, but the restaurant seemed extremely slow to fire her, taking almost three weeks after the hoax was discovered. She must have been quite a waitress.

Has that ever happened to you? Your highest-performing sales person -- or maybe the mayor* -- is credibly accused of sexually harassment, or you discover that your trusted CFO concealed that she had a personal bankruptcy and 20 misdemeanor convictions for check-kiting. As the employer, you go through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Especially denial.

*Be sure to check out the computer-generated animation of the alleged sexual harassment scenario. Wave of the future in litigation?

It's hard to find out that someone you thought was da bomb is actually a dud. You wish you were wrong, but as the evidence pours in, you can't hang onto that fantasy any more. Then you start thinking, Well, was it really that bad? That sales assistant probably asked for it . . . and about that CFO, let he who is without sin cast the first stone. I've certainly made plenty of mistakes in my life. Who am I to judge?

Stop that. Stop that right now!

Here are some reasons why you have to toughen up, no matter how great you thought your employee was:

1. Most obviously, because sexual harassment, embezzlement, racism, falsification, violent or immoral behavior, internet hoaxes, and all that stuff is wrong. It violates your company policies (or certainly ought to), which were adopted for a good reason -- to allow your employees to have a civil and peaceful, if not harmonious, workplace, to preserve the company's financial integrity, and to protect the company's reputation.

2. Failure to take action with "the elite" can lead to discrimination claims from the rank and file. Let's say this week you find out that the mayor* (who, by the way, is white) has hit on 50 women, but you look the other way because he's been just great for the city, brought in a lot of new business, and looks very handsome cutting those ribbons and handing out those giant keys. Next week a couple of garbage collectors tell you that their boss, who is black, has been sexually harassing them. Whose head will roll? CORRECT ANSWER: Nobody's, if you ignored what the white mayor was doing. If you fire the black sanitation supervisor but don't do anything to the mayor (even though the mayor's conduct was worse), then you could be liable for race discrimination.

*I realize "mayor" is not the best example because a mayor normally has to resign, be voted out of office, or be impeached. But Mayor Filner is such an easy target, and you get my point. (By the way, I don't know that Mayor Filner is alleged to have sexually harassed 50 women. The number "50" is my invention.)

On the other hand, if you do nothing out of fear of race discrimination, you have 52 employees who are victims of sexual harassment. That's not cool, either. (See Reason No. 1.)

Firing the "mayor," or your top sales person, or top executive, or your creative genius, is the only way you can solve mitigate all of these problems.

3. This is the United States of America, buddy. Enforcing your rules only against the 99 percent and not the 1 percent makes you (and your company) look like a jerk. The same behavioral standards should apply to everybody, at all levels of the company. If you must be elitist, impose higher standards on your higher-level people, not lower ones.

4. Enforcing your rules only against the 99 percent and not the 1 percent causes everyone, at all levels, to lose respect for your company's "system." This is a very big deal. If enough employees notice that the rules apply to them but not to the super-high-up or the super-talented, the employees will become cynical about your grievance procedure, your open-door policy, your EEO policy, your no-harassment policy, your whistleblowing policy, and all of those other policies that you worked so hard to develop to make your company an open, fair, and fine place to work.

And because you are a bright HR professional or attorney, you know that if employees stop coming to you with their concerns, they will go . . . elsewhere.

Of course, all of the above implies that you have already conducted a thorough investigation and determined that the "star" is, more likely than not, guilty of the misconduct. If you have good reason to believe that the allegations are false, that's a different story. But in determining what happened, do your best not to let the accused party's "star" status sway you in either direction.

In summary: Even if it breaks your heart to do it (and it will), be sure to treat your most-beloved employees who commit misconduct the same way you treat your average joes and janes who commit similar misconduct. As time goes by, your heart will heal, and you'll know you did the right thing.

Robin Shea has 30 years' experience in employment litigation, including Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (including the Amendments Act). 
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