Any managers have experience being sued for wrongful termination?

We received a letter at my work from a lawyer stating that we were being sued over wrongful termination. My boss called me in to discuss it because the employee was terminated by me almost a year ago and I was mentioned directly in the letter. I saw the letter but did get a chance to read it, my boss had not even had a chance to read it thoroughly.

My boss tried to reassure me to not get too worked up over this, as we still had to show the letter to our lawyer and go from there. Also that I might need to be present in court and so would the witness we had in the documentation of dismissal. However my boss did say, "this is bad" before we started discussing it. So thus at this point I'm still pretty worked up.

When we fired the employee last year we had documentation and supporting witnesses to the issue at hand. This employee did receive unemployment. It's almost a year later and we are an at-will state. 

Has anyone been through this before? I'm terrified because my boss said "this is bad." I know what I did was correct based on the facts we had and the decision we (me and my boss) made for the company but now I feel like I did something wrong. I'm second guessing things that happened and I'm just stressed.

What is the process of these things? Anyone been through one? Is this normal to have something like this happen when you are in management with HR duties?

Anyone can sue for anything.

Anyone can sue for anything.  Winning is another story. And yes, getting sued over an HR issue happens.

Key points:

  • If you follow the MT guidance, particularly one-on-ones, feedback, and documentation, you are miles in front of the normal manager.
  • Documentation is the key, it doesn't need to be in any particular format.  Mark has a podcast where he describes his one-on-one notebook full of post-it notes.  HR was thrilled. 
  • Your company's lawyer and HR department are on your team. They've been through this before.  Let them run with this.  The fact that the employee received unemployment, and that it's an at-will state may or may not be relevant.
  • Don't be surprised (and don't be bitter) if your company decides to settle. It's no reflection on you or what you did.  It just can be a cost of doing business.

Bottom-line, this kind of thing happens.  Don't second-guess yourself.  Nothing you do now, can change what happened a year-ago.

As long as the employee was fired for a valid, non-discriminatory reason, things should work out.

 

Try not to take it personally

I agree with Mike_Bruns_99 - it happens, and there's no guarantee you'll win, even if you're sure you were right. I had to deal with two employees I had dismissed who were taking the business to an employment tribunal (specialist court dealing in employment law) here in the UK.  I had followed procedures and took specialist legal advice throughout the disciplinary process, and still ended up settling because our lawyers felt the result was too close to call on the technicalities.  I would have preferred to go all the way, but you have to be pragmatic in these situations. All you can do is provide the documentation, let the lawyers haggle, and draw a clear line in the sand you will not go beyond.  Remember there are hidden costs too - your time in preparing the case with your legal team, that of your witnesses, and the fact that while you are sitting in a courtroom your are not doing what you are being paid to do.  In the end my boss and I agreed to settle because the cost was less than the four days in court the case had been allocated.

It's stressful, and can dominate your thinking for weeks, but always remember if you've been following the advice at MT your decision to fire someone is a last resort. I have only had to dismiss staff members three times in my entire management career of twenty-odd years, and this was the first where things ended up with the lawyers. I hated it every time, but I know in each case there was absolutely no choice. So don't take it personally - you were a professional doing your job.  Someone else might see it differently, and with hindsight we can all do that, but you made what you believed to be the right decision at the time.  Stand by it and try to move on.  Good luck.