Hiring and firing employees when you own a contracting business

As an employer of the day, hiring and firing employees was your uncontested right. There was no such thing as ‘wrongful termination’ suits, discrimination suits, sex discrimination or sexual harassment suits, or any of the myriad legal hoops that have leapt into existence in the past 25 or so years.  If you decided that an employee needed to be let go, for whatever reason, that employee was let go. After all, it was your company and you had the right to run it as you saw fit. 

How it was…

With all the emphasis this column has placed on our inadequate manpower situation in the past eight months, and the lengths to which we need to go to identify, find and recruit more people, the idea of actually talking about firing people hasn’t gotten much ink.  Although the subject can be a bit touchy, there is ample evidence these days that letting someone go for cause, or for any reason, can be a minefield for the employer.

A brief recap of where we have come from to where we are now; remember that prior to our entry into World War II in December of 1941, the country had been slow to recover from the Great Depression which began in October of 1929. The war, while not good for most things, did have a strong economic impact. Once the war had ended, many GI’s were returning to the workforce and America was gearing up for an economic and social boom of unprecedented magnitude.

For the rest of the decade, and through the 1950s and early 60s, the last American “Golden Age” was in full swing. Most people that wanted work (just about everyone of age, man or woman) could find a job. The more technical the job (i.e., trades, machinists, etc.) the more coveted it was, and usually the more it paid. The idea of working for one company until you retired was a desirable situation and not an unusual occurrence. Showing up for work every day, on time, and working a full day (including overtime if available) was the norm throughout the country. For most working people of the era, the idea of welfare was a stigma and any job was better than taking public assistance. 

As an employer of the day, hiring and firing employees was your uncontested right. There was no such thing as ‘wrongful termination’ suits, discrimination suits, sex discrimination or sexual harassment suits, or any of the myriad legal hoops that have leapt into existence in the past 25 or so years.  If you decided that an employee needed to be let go, for whatever reason, that employee was let go. After all, it was your company and you had the right to run it as you saw fit. 

Fast forward to 2013

That premise has been warped and twisted by time, and ill-conceived laws, until today firing an employee has become an exercise in insanity. Over time, laws and regulations have been enacted (usually by people who have never run a business, made a payroll or had to perform per contract) to protect the ‘rights’ of the employed.  These rules and laws have been promulgated with no regard for the employer’s ‘right’ to run his business at a profit with the employees of his choosing. Who in their right mind would keep an employee who is dishonest, lazy, unreliable or incompetent? Well, by today’s standards, an employer must be exceedingly careful or he will be forced to keep such a person on his payroll or face stiff monetary censure.

Do you want an example of the inmates running the asylum? The governor of Illinois has just signed an executive order that forbids the state from asking about an applicant’s felony record! This brilliant idea came from a legislator who is (as I write this) in federal court for bank fraud…while still in office! According to my research, it is not their idea that private sector businesses be proscribed from asking these types of questions, but knowing what we all know, it won’t be long before it will be deemed “politically incorrect” to inquire of a prospective employee whether or not he might have been charged or convicted of being a child molester, rapist, violent offender or even a murderer! Can you imagine hiring someone without being able to properly vet them, and then sending that employee out on a service call to one of your customers? Adding insult to injury; asking about the prospective employee’s criminal record could get you sued by the criminal, not to mention the level of liability you would be responsible for if such an employee were to commit a crime against the person of one of your customers!

This theater of the absurd has become our daily way of life in 21st century America.  The idiocy of these laws continue to go unchallenged or, if challenged, usually fail to be overturned by judges who reject logical arguments in favor of ideas that ‘sound’ good as opposed to ones that actually work.

So, what are you to do? If you operate a large company, watch out! You are in the crosshairs the minute that prospective employee walks through your door. By all means, put in place a procedure that allows you to thoroughly vet prospective new employees, including background checks if you can afford them. Provide printed manuals describing your company policies as regards employee/employer responsibilities and most important: document, document, document!! Document every infraction of the rules, every tardy arrival, problem with fellow employees and management, anything and everything that the employee does from the time you hire him to the time you fire him. You will need it all!

If you aren’t a big company?  Do anything you can and CYA! Itwill get worse before it ever gets better!

The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born author is a retired third generation master plumber. He founded Sunflower Plumbing & Heating in Shirley, N.Y., in 1975 and A Professional Commercial Plumbing Inc. in Phoenix in 1980. He holds residential, commercial, industrial and solar plumbing licenses and is certified in welding, clean rooms, polypropylene gas fusion and medical gas piping. He can be reached at [email protected].

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