How Firing Public Employees Became a Nightmare in Kentucky

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Jun 1, 2010

If you have worked in management or HR for very long, you know that firing an employee is probably the toughest thing you’ll ever do.

No one in their right mind likes to do it, but it’s one of those unpleasant duties that go along with being a manager. And, any manager or HR professional worth their salt has to face up to it and find a way to carry out a termination in as civil and humane a manner as possible. That’s why this recent story in the Louisville Courier-Journal, Kentucky’s largest newspaper, caught my eye.

Headlined “Kentucky state workers successfully fight firings,” it leads off with the case of a state employee who “dumped a stack of confidential disability claims in his garage that he was supposed to review at work,” and was summarily fired by the state’s department of Health and Family Services. The worker appealed his termination to the Kentucky Personnel Board, who reviewed the appeal and “agreed that the firing seemed justified. It noted that )the worker) had taken home and abandoned sensitive records including clients’ names, medical information, Social Security numbers, birth dates and telephone numbers,” according to the Courier-Journal story.

“But on Feb. 18, the board nevertheless ordered (the worker) reinstated with back pay to his $37,632-a-year job reviewing disability claims — because it found that the official who fired him had no legal authority to do so,” the newspaper reported. “Since then, after five other identical findings, the board has reversed or is expected to reverse cabinet decisions to fire or demote workers. The cases could cost the taxpayers thousands of dollars since the employees whose firings or demotions have been overturned have all been ordered reinstated with back pay.”

The problem in Kentucky, it seems, is that the terminations were handled by managers who had not been designated with the actual authority to fire state workers.

“Lawyers representing the employees say state personnel law — meant to protect merit employees from arbitrary or political actions — is very clear when it comes to hiring and firing,” the newspaper added.  “Only the official designated by law has such authority, they say, and in these cases the (department) failed to follow the law.”

The opinions said that under state law only the “appointing authority” — generally the cabinet secretary or agency head — has power to hire or fire employees.

And the law in the great Commonwealth of Kentucky says that only the secretary of the state’s department of Health and Human Services Health and Family Services “may delegate that power to another official but that must be done in a written document filed with the state Personnel Cabinet.” That wasn’t done in the case of the worker who dumped the confidential disability claims in his garage – a pretty open-and-shut case for termination, it seems – and five other workers. They were reinstated, with back pay, even though replacements had already filled their jobs.

This is a lesson that all managers and HR professionals would do well to remember: terminations are never easy or cut-and-dried, no matter what the circumstances. You must prepare carefully and make sure that every base is covered, every potential problem sorted out, even if it means delaying the termination for additional days, weeks or months.

Problems occur when these situations get driven by an arbitrary timetable instead of a rigorous investigation of the situation and ALL possible angles and issues. In my experience, too many terminations turn personal, where some high up manager just wants the offending worker “gone,” without proper consideration of all the relevant legal, personnel and cultural workplace issues that may be involved.

In the case of these public workers in Kentucky, it was simply a case of making sure the managers doing the terminations had been properly and legally designated to do so. Making sure that the letter of the law had been followed might have taken additional time, but it would have saved the cost, and countless hours involved, having to fight the appeal and ultimately reinstate workers due to a technicality.

Terminations are never easy and that’s because taking away a person’s job, their livelihood, should be a difficult and onerous thing to do. Anyone considering it needs to step back, take a deep breath, and then go to work making sure that everything is done to make the firing as legal, proper and humane as possible. Anything less is simply HR and management malpractice.