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The Practical Employer

Fight Unemployment Claims at Your Own Peril

It is not enough for an employer to treat employees well during their tenure but also strive to treat employees well in conjunction with their terminations and thereafter.

My friend and fellow blogger (with whom I tend to agree most of the time), Suzanne Lucas (aka Evil HR Lady), recently posted an article about which I could not agree more, Why You Should Rarely Fight an Unemployment Claim.

Her argument (which she agrees runs counter to most employers’ conventional wisdom that says, “I must fight each unemployment claim an employee files because successful unemployment claims cost money, and I do not like spending money”):

When you fire an employee, for whatever reason, they are likely to be angry. Most likely they think you were unfair. While you followed procedures and made decisions by the book, all it takes is this employee convincing an attorney that he was treated differently than other employees who were a different race, gender, religion, or other protected class, and you’re on the hook for thousands of dollars—not because you’re guilty of illegal discrimination. But, even responding to the attorney will cost you money, and it could cost you your reputation if the employee can garner public support. Cutting someone off from employment and unemployment makes people angry—and angry people will be far more likely to retaliate in court.

Let me give you a real-life example to support Suzanne’s astute argument that employers who fight unemployment claims create unhappy and angry ex-employees, which helps breed the right environment for lawsuits.

At the conclusion of a day-long plaintiff’s deposition in an FMLA and disability discrimination lawsuit, it was clear to me that my client had not only not violated any laws, but bent over backwards to do everything possible to accommodate the plaintiff. The company had treated this employee so well, I asked a question that I had never asked in another deposition — why are you suing?

It seems to me that they treated you fairly. They gave you an initial medical leave of more than 12 weeks, they provided you every accommodation you requested for your medical conditions, they provided you a second medical leave of more than 12 weeks, and you received several raises during your employment. Why are you suing this company?

The answer she gave floored me — not because it was damaging to my case, but because something that seemed so trifling caused the lawsuit. Her answer: “They fought my unemployment.”

Employees sue when they feel disrespected or when they perceive unfair treatment. It is not simply enough for an employer to treat employees well during their tenure. Employers should also strive to treat employees well in conjunction with their terminations and even thereafter. Sure, there are exceptions. I would never suggest that a serial harasser deserves a pass, or that the employee who stole from you should receive unemployment. If you don’t want to be sued, though, don’t make a terminated employee feel like a common criminal by having security escort them to the door (unless you legitimately and reasonably perceive a safety risk). It’s okay not to give a glowing recommendation to a marginal ex-employee, but resist the urge to trash him or her to a prospective employer. And, don’t fight unemployment except in the most clear-cut cases of cause. These little things could go a long way to an ex-employee reaching the decision to let bygones be bygones and not to sue you.

So think before filing that challenge to your ex-employee’s unemployment claim. It may be the smartest decision you can make.

Jon Hyman is a partner at Meyers, Roman, Friedberg & Lewis in Cleveland. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Hyman’s blog at Workforce.com/PracticalEmployer.