Reputation is Everything

by Timothy F. Murphy

I just finished reading a nightmare of a case involving the relentless campaign of a town resident to call out and punish a town official for his role in the controversial development of historic property in the center of their town. The town official’s father bought the property, and the official did much of the legal work surrounding the development. It just so happened that the town official sat on the board of selectmen for much of the time the sale and development process took place.

Over the course of years, the resident spent 1-2 million dollars publicizing his allegations of conflict of interest, corruption, multiple investigations, and legal wrongdoing by the official and others. The campaign spread across multiple platforms: emails, town mailings, videos, internet, lawn signs, bumper stickers, a glossy newsletter entitled “Why Perjury Matters,” robocalls, etc.

The resident ultimately sued the official for defamation, after which the official countersued the resident, claiming the resident was the one who had defamed him. After a trial lasting weeks, the jury found that the official did not defame the resident but that the resident defamed the official twenty-nine times. The jury awarded the official 2.9 million dollars, of which 2.5 million was for damage to his  reputation. The resident appealed but lost.

Takeaways for Employers:

This wasn’t an employment case, but as I read it I wondered what the lessons are for employers. There are some lessons; they just aren’t new ones, necessarily.

Most of the employers I know do not fire employees in a rash or hasty manner. They try to get all the key facts and get them right. That is the right thing to do because getting fired can have a devastating effect on some employees. That impact may not be confined to career or ability to make a living, but a firing can have a cascading effect on home, family, etc. So the stakes can be high for employees and employers, especially if there is a legal challenge to the firing.

So back to the lessons for employers:

  1. Make sure employees know what the rules are and that the rules are applied consistently;
  2. Investigate allegations of employee misconduct fairly and thoroughly by getting all sides of the story, even if it takes time;
  3. Rely on the facts and not biases, hearsay, or assumptions in making employment decisions; and
  4. Impose a punishment that fits the “crime.”

By the way, if you want the details of the case that inspired this post, it is called: Van Liew v. Eliopoulos v. Hands on Technology Transfer, Inc., et al., (Mass. Appeals Court No. 16- P-567,  August 25, 2017).

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