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Better communication is key to avoiding costly lawsuits

Portland, Ore. — Anger is usually the key motivation in bringing a lawsuit against an employer. Treating employees decently and respectfully will minimize the possibility of such legal action.

"Employees can become angry because of how they are treated," says Kathy Peck, a partner at the law firm of Williams, Zografos & Peck in Lake Oswego, Ore. "Anger is the common denominator in an employee lawsuit. It's important to note that it's usually 5 percent of the workforce that causes 95 percent of the heartburn."

Speaking here at the Pacific Northwest Dermatology conference on the "Top Ten Ways to Get Sued," Ms. Peck offered tips for physicians in private practice to help them steer clear of messy, expensive lawsuits brought by disgruntled employees.

"These are tips on what you should avoid doing," Ms. Peck says. "They are common mistakes that can be avoided with improved communication."

The golden rules

  • Tip No. 1: Require supervisors to follow the golden rules of discipline, including the rule of immediacy, the rule of consistency, the rule of impersonality and the rule of positivism.

"There should be a standard policy about things like being late for work," Ms. Peck, who specializes in employment law, says. "Employers need to be consistent in disciplining employees."

When an employee violates a standard in the workplace, the discipline should be swift, so that the employees make a connection between the offense and the discipline.

"It should take place immediately and not three months later," Ms. Peck says.

  • Tip No. 2: Employers should not say what they don't really mean. In short, Ms. Peck warns, avoid the danger of loose lips. The comments can be used in court to make the plaintiff look sympathetic.

"When the employee is terminated, the statements you made may come back to haunt you," she says.

  • Tip No. 3: In keeping with saying what you mean, it's also advisable not to call a discharge a layoff, notes Ms. Peck.

"Don't be a 'Chicken Little,' " Ms. Peck tells Cosmetic Surgery Times. "It's not a layoff if a replacement has been selected. If you don't intend to replace the person because you are consolidating or downsizing the work force, that is a layoff."

  • Tip No. 4: Employers should make sure they listen to an employee's version of events before deciding to discipline or discharge him or her.

"Always listen to the employee's side of the story before you terminate them," Ms. Peck says. "A jury and a judge get mad if they find out someone was fired without being given a reason. Don't play a game of cat-and-mouse."

  • Tip No. 5: Employers should document all personnel decisions.

According to Ms. Peck, jurors absorb more from the testimony in written exhibits than from oral testimony. Documentation is invaluable in assisting an employer to paint the picture that the action he or she took was firm, fair and legitimate.

"Documenting your decisions will also avoid 'he said/she said' situations," she says.

  • Tip No. 6:Address the "bad attitude" employee. Employees who are troublemakers should be notified and told that their behavior won't be tolerated.

"These people make the workplace unhappy," Ms. Peck explains. "They are negative, manipulative or they backstab. Their presence tends to be poisonous in the workplace."


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