Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Are HR People and In-House Lawyers Completely Worthless?

Being cheated out of your job in the worst economy since the Great Depression does not come with many moments of hilarity.

But my unlawful termination at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) did come with one slice of comedy. And it raises these questions: Are human resources (HR) departments a total waste of carbon? Can the same be said for in-house lawyers?

My comic moment came on May 29, 2008, when I opened my e-mail and found a missive from Anita Bonasera, UAB's director of employee relations. This was 10 days after I had been "fired," and the e-mail contained a copy of my termination letter as an attachment. Here is the body of the message:

From: Anita L Bonasera
Sent: Monday, May 19, 2008 8:59 AM
To: Dale G Turnbough; Pamela Powell; Kristi Lamont Ellis
Subject: draft letter

I have attached draft for your review. Cheryl, John and Lisa have reviewed and I would appreciate your input. Thanks. /Anita

You will note that it was sent to the original recipients at 8:59 a.m. on May 19. The recipients were Pam Powell (my boss), Dale Turnbough (Powell's superior), and Kristi Lamont Ellis (who held some title--not sure what it was--in Public Relations and Marketing). Later that day, in a meeting with Bonasera and Turnbough, I would receive my very own personal copy of the termination letter, along with notification that my 19 years of service at UAB were over.

Ten days later, Bonasera would forward this e-mail . . . to me. I can only assume she did it by mistake. In addition to giving me a much-needed belly laugh, it provided names of the folks in UAB's chain of command who signed off on my termination.

The e-mail tells us that "Cheryl," "John," and "Lisa" have reviewed the letter. That would be Cheryl E.H. Locke, then director of human resources who since has left for Wake Forest University; John Daniel, director of the UAB Office of Counsel; and Lisa Huggins, a lawyer in the Office of Counsel.

What else does the e-mail tell us? For one, my termination letter was signed by Dale Turnbough. But we learn that she didn't even write it. Based on the e-mail, it appears that Bonasera wrote it and forwarded it to Turnbough for review. Turnbough had almost zero knowledge about my job duties and performance--and Bonasera had even less.

I had never met Bonasera until I was called into a meeting on May 7, 2008, that ended with me being placed on administrative leave. I had thought it strange that I was fired not by my supervisor, but by a third party (Turnbough). Through this e-mail I learned I was fired by roughly a 12,535th party (Bonasera). We had cockroaches in our office that knew more about my job performance than the person who wrote my termination letter.

What else do we learn? UAB's personnel in HR and the Office of Counsel must be the most clueless or spineless (or both) individuals on the planet. They signed off on this termination, even though it raised enough red flags to choke a bullfighter.

To fully appreciate the inanity of the UAB crowd, let's imagine how a competent HR director might have handled this situation. We will call him H.R. Jones, and let's imagine him meeting with Dale Turnbough, the person whose name is on the termination letter. (You can read the termination letter at the end of this post.)

HR: I've checked Mr. Shuler's record, and he's worked here 19 years, with no disciplinary record under university policy. I assume you must have an awfully good reason for wanting to fire him.

DT: Uhhh . . . yeah.

HR: Now, let's take a look at the termination letter you wrote . . .

DT: Uhh, I didn't exactly write it.

HR: Well, who did?

DT: Umm, Anita Bonasera, in Employee Relations.

HR: And how much time did Ms. Bonasera spend observing the incidents raised in this termination letter?

DT: Well . . . probably none.

HR: Are you familiar with the term "hearsay"? Well, it sounds like your letter is hearsay to the nth degree.

DT: Hearsay is such an . . . ugly word.

HR: Let's look closer at the letter you didn't write.


HR: You tell Mr. Shuler that he was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation of "several serious policy violations" stemming from his "misuse of UAB equipment." What specific policies did Mr. Shuler violate?

DT: Well . . . uh . . . can I get back to you on that?

HR: Don't you think it would be a good idea to be specific about these policy violations?

DT: Probably so.

HR: What kind of UAB equipment did Mr. Shuler misuse?

DT: Computer equipment.

HR: So you're saying Mr. Shuler violated the UAB Acceptable Use Policy (AUP)?

DT: Yes . . . well, no . . . to tell you the truth, I've never heard of that policy.

HR: It governs the use of UAB computers, networks, printers, and associated equipment. You want to fire someone over alleged misuse of computers, and you've never heard of the AUP?

DT: We sure do have a lot of policies around here. Kind of hard to keep up with everything.

HR: You say Mr. Shuler spent several hours a day on his computer doing things unrelated to his work, and you say he used the departmental printer to print non-work related documents. Who made the determination that these were non-work activities?

DT: Pam Powell, his supervisor, told me.

HR: Is this the same Pam Powell against whom Mr. Shuler filed a grievance a few weeks ago, claiming she was harassing him due to his age?

DT: Umm . . . yes.

HR: And Mr. Shuler filed that grievance on the same day that he had met with you to complain about age discrimination?

DT: Umm . . . yes.

HR: Are you aware that UAB policy states that an employee is to use the grievance process without fear of reprisal?

DT: It says that?

HR: Yes, it does. And it means we need to be real careful about how we treat an employee who has filed a grievance in human resources.

DT: I'll be darned.

HR: You go on to allege that Mr. Shuler failed to seek authorization for time off and failed to document work time on the billing system.

DT: Oh, yes . . . that was a big problem.

HR: It was? The guy worked here 19 years and didn't know how to fill out a vacation-request form or a time sheet? If it was such a big problem, why did you let it go for so many years?

DT: Uhh . . . can I get back to you on that one, too?

HR: You say Mr. Shuler displayed belligerent and threatening behavior in a counseling session over these issues. How do you know he displayed such behavior?

DT: His supervisor told me.

HR: The same one he's filed a grievance against?

DT: Uhh . . . yes.

HR: Are you familiar with a legal term called "retaliation"?

DT: I think I've heard of it . . . yeah.

HR: It generally refers to employers who receive a genuine complaint from an employee and then turn around and take improper actions against that employee. They "retaliate" against him. It's against the law. It's not a good thing.

DT: Hmmm . . .

HR: Do you see how a reasonable jury could view Pam Powell's actions as retaliation?

DT: Gee . . . retaliation is such an . . . ugly word.

HR: You say Mr. Shuler had been warned in staff meetings not to engage in activities associated with his personal blog at work. How do you know that? Oh wait, I'm guessing Pam Powell told you!

DT: Uhh . . . yeah.

HR: Did you witness those warnings firsthand?

DT: No.

HR: Does the department have any documentation regarding those warnings?

DT: No.

HR: You say you personally instructed Mr. Shuler not to do work with his personal blog during work hours? What made you think he was doing that?

DT: I didn't.

HR: You had no evidence that he was working on his personal blog at work?

DT: No.

HR: Then, why did you warn him about something he wasn't doing in the first place?

DT: Gee . . . you've sort of stumped me with that one.

HR: You know, my life would be so much easier if UAB managers would actually read our policies.

DT: It would?

HR: Yes, and here is why. You've alleged that Mr. Shuler violated the Acceptable Use Policy. And that policy clearly states that we will deal with such offenses using Progressive Discipline. You've heard of that?

DT: It sounds familiar.

HR: Well, here's how it works: Short of serious offenses that merit immediate discharge--stealing, fighting, stuff like that--we use Progressive Discipline. That means if we have reason to believe an employee has violated a UAB policy, we discuss it with them, issue an oral warning, and document that. If the problem continues, we issue a written warning and document that. If that doesn't solve the problem, it could lead to termination. In other words, the level of discipline progresses. That's why we call it Progressive Discipline.

DT: Neat name.

HR: You see, university policy requires us to warn employees about offenses we have reason to believe they have actually committed. Managers are not to issue "prospective warnings" about an offense the employee apparently hasn't even committed. We try to deal in a world of reality, not managerial fantasy.

DT: We do?

HR: Yes. And here's another thing. Your letter says Mr. Shuler's "serious policy violations" warrant "immediate dismissal." But I see no evidence of that. You don't note any specific policy violations, you didn't use Progressive Discipline, you apparently didn't document anything, and you didn't even write this letter.

DT: Would you like to see my soft-shoe routine? It's very good.

HR: In fact, your failure to follow Progressive Discipline and document it, indicates that--according to our own records--Mr. Shuler did not violate any policies at all.

DT: But Pam Powell said . . .

HR: Well, Pam Powell apparently harassed Mr. Shuler severely enough that he filed a formal grievance against her--the only one he had filed here in 19 years. When she then, after the fact, says, "Mr. Shuler did this and Mr. Shuler did that," well, it smells real strongly of retaliation. You remember that ugly word?

DT: Yes.

HR: And it makes Ms. Powell a real poor witness for our side of things.

DT: A witness? We have to worry about witnesses?

HR: Well, here's the thing, Ms. Turnbough. We have policies, such as Progressive Discipline, so that we can treat employees fairly and equally under federal law. If we use Progressive Discipline with one employee and not with another, that leads to something called "discrimination." And discrimination, if it involves an employee in a protected class, can lead to these things called "lawsuits." Do you see what I'm getting at?

DT: Lawsuit is such . . . an ugly word.

HR: I agree with you there. And my life is so much more pleasant without them. That's why I would suggest you give a second thought to firing Mr. Shuler.

DT: Second thought? Heck, I haven't given it a first thought yet! Hah! That's a joke.

HR: Very funny.

Here is the full termination letter:


Robby Scott Hill said...

I challenged my firing at Florida East Coast Industries & Robert Francis Nelson, the in-house attorney & a member of the Alabama State Bar as well as The Florida State Bar laughed at me because he said & I quote, "You're not protected because you're not Black, not a woman or over 40." You're just another f@cking idiot who didn't pay attention in law school. He failed to look at my personnel file & see that I am Native American. I know In-House Lawyers who fire people without cause just to free up money in the budget for their next promotion. Many of them truly are worthless.

Hootboyslimm said...

I know first hand what it is like to be crucified with extreme prejudice.

It traumatized me. It made me afraid to even try again.

Going through the interview process is something I just can't handle.

I am reliable and always got the job done but, there is always some "Demon" You have to "deal with" one every job..somebody on a "Power Trip" who thinks They are God Almighty. It's scary.

Anonymous said...

Roger, over there in Alabama the good old boy network can do what they want to anybody they want to do it to. You weren't part of the club, you didn't suck up to the right wing loonies and therefore they didn't like you because they couldn't control your mind. I really hope you get some satisfaction out of this someday as well as a bunch of money. And in the end, God knows what happened and I'm pretty sure he is getting fed up with the 'Religious Right'.
(I usually post under starkvillebiblestudents but dropped my blog).

Redeye said...

I know first hand what's it like to be legally lynched and crucifed with extreme prejudice too Hooboyslimm. It traumatized me, but it didnt' kill me. It made me stronger.
Those who have faith have no fear, those who have fear have no faith.
They win whem they make you afraid to even try.