By: Jay Mittelman
Q. We believe one of our employees stole her personnel file, containing a warning she had signed. Is this grounds to fire her?
This employee has been missing work and been repeatedly sick. Last Friday, she called in and said she was ill. We called her home at mid-day, and her father said she was out of town on a job interview. Monday, we called her in and told her if she lied to us again about being ill, she would be fired. We made a record of this warning, and had her sign it. On Tuesday, we found her personnel file is missing, including the warning. Is this grounds to fire her? We believe she took it. What should we do?
Not so fast. The problem here is that stealing and theft are technically legal terms. If you discipline or terminate an employee for “stealing” or for “theft,” you are opening yourself and your business or organization to the real possibility the accused will file a defamation lawsuit. Why? Because you’ve accused the employee of being a criminal, that is, stealing and/or theft. And unless the employee is convicted of the crime of theft, how do you defend your accusation? What to do in your situation? First, immediately make a written record of your history with this employee. Reconstruct the record as best you can from memory. Especially reconstruct the most recent events. In effect, do your best to recreate what was in the personnel file, including a note that the original documents became missing, and the date the file was missed.
This situation — involving an employee who you have reason to believe is a liar and a thief — is always difficult. If in fact the employee is a liar and thief, you don’t want him or her working for you. And co-workers don’t like to work with someone who lies and cheats and steals. So morale suffers.
What to do? Monitor such employees closely. But don’t harass them and don’t treat them differently than other employees. If you terminate them for cause, be sure that you have objective, documented evidence of wrong-doing.