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Firing easy for Trump, dangerous for others - "The two riskiest things an employer can do are hire or fire somebody," one Blacksburg attorney said.

by Don Simmons Jr. - Reprinted with permission from The Roanoke Times April 15th, 2004, www.roanoke.com. on 12/31/2003
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PULASKI - "You're fired."

How easily that haunting phrase rolls off the tongue these days.

Those two little words have launched New York City impresario Donald Trump back into the limelight.

Trump's television triumph, "The Apprentice," [came] to the end of its first season [on April 15th]. But Blacksburg attorney James Cowan, who specializes in employment and labor law, warns that what happens after saying "You're fired" can often take up a whole other series if it's not done right.

"The two riskiest things an employer can do are hire or fire somebody," Cowan said.

Cowan, who spoke to the Pulaski Rotary Club earlier this week, has been counseling and training managers on how to avoid stressful terminations for 10 years. He admits he doesn't watch the show and therefore can't critique Trump's made-for-TV firing tactics.

But he said not recognizing the danger signs of a firing that might lead to litigation can cost a company anywhere from $35,000 to six figures to defend - and millions if a jury sides with the fired employee.

Just so you're not quaking in your leather seat or digging walnut veneer from beneath your nails, Cowan said that only about 30 percent of termination lawsuits in Virginia end up in court. Most are dismissed when a judge rules that the case has no basis in law. Of those that remain in play, two out of three go to mediation.

But the terminated employee wins about 60 percent of cases that make it before a jury.

"Even a six-figure judgment can devastate a small company with only 50 or so employees," Cowan said.

Training sessions with Cowan, who works at Flippin, Densmore, Morse & Jessee, run about the same as his hourly rate - $207 to $275 - for small companies. Larger employers, with armies of managers to train, can pay thousands and receive customized videos, live-action demonstrations and nationally renowned guest speakers.

But for those who can afford neither, he said, the No. 1 predictor of whether someone you've fired is going to sue : Is that person going to be surprised?

Progressive discipline is the mantra today. An ounce of prevention.

"You need to have a system for proper documentation and progressive discipline," said John Clark, vice president for human resources of Rowe Furniture , which has used Cowan's services since 1996. "Most companies use a series of verbal counseling and written reprimands that tell an employee clearly what they need to do to stay employed."

Still, with 1,800 employees in four plants in two states, Clark said some managers can go off the reservation.

"Occasionally we've had to go back and clean up a little to get everyone on the same page," he said.

Cowan said putting in a little time and money on the front end can save of a lot of money later.

For the record, debonair as he might seem, even "the Donald" has at least one blemish.

In 2002, a 62-year-old master chef at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla., filed an age-discrimination lawsuit when he was fired six months into a one-year contract.

"I hired him at the same age I fired him," Trump told the Palm Beach Post.

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Categories: 2004

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