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Potty-Mouthed Employees

Most non-union employees are at-will, which means you can fire them for any reason, as long as some other law, such as discrimination laws, doesn’t trump. So, if an employee has a potty mouth, you can fire her, right?

May 6, 2014
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Related Topics: Policies and Procedures, Legal, Staffing Management, Workplace Culture
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Most non-union employees are at-will, which means you can fire them for any reason, good, bad, or for no reason at all (as long as some other law, such as discrimination laws, doesn’t trump). So, if an employee has a potty mouth, you can fire her, right? Not so fast, says an unemployment hearing officer in Iowa.

Wellma “Tootie” Shafer worked for 18 months as a cashier at the Last Chance Market in Russell, Iowa. The market sells the following products:

  • “Wake the F— Up” coffee
  • “The Hottest F—in’ Nuts”
  • “The Hottest F—in’ Sauce,” which is labeled as having an “ass-burning” quality

The store also boasts a metal sign by the entrance that reads, “Shirts and shoes are required, but bras and panties are optional.”

It seems that Tootie liked to talk to some of customers about “dirty, adult situations.” After some eavesdropping customers complained, her boss, Rick Braaksma, fired her. At the unemployment hearing, the hearing office took Braaksma to task for his apparent double standard. From The Des Moines Register:

After Braaksma testified that he doesn’t tolerate dirty jokes in his store, Administrative Law Judge Beth Scheetz asked him, “So why don’t you remove these articles from your shelves?” 
“Because we sell them,” he said. 
“They are dirty jokes on your shelves, basically,” Scheetz said. 
“No, they’re bottles of hot sauce,” Braaksma responded. “It’s all right to have dirty words on the premises because the farmers come in there and eat lunch all the time and that’s just, uh, kind of —” 
“So dirty words are OK,” Scheetz said. 
“Yeah,” Braaksma said, “but there’s a time and a place for it.”

I can make a really good argument that once a customer complains about an employee’s potty mouth, the game changes (even if the store sells f’n coffee). If someone complains about harassment, an employer should investigate, and, if necessary, reasonably remediate. In this case, the employer decided to terminate. This judge, in this context (an unemployment claim), saw it differently. 

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