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A Jeweler is Forced to Fire His Peer’s Son, Who Then Threatens to Sue. How Should He Handle It?

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FIVE YEARS AGO, Jim Leland, owner of James, Ltd., an upscale, suburban store in the Southeast, got a call from Scott Gordon, his longtime best friend and fellow jewelry store owner. Scott said that his 30 year-old son Evan — an entry-level bench jeweler — was struggling and was in need of a fresh start. He knew that Jim had been looking to replace his soon-to-retire bench guy, and asked if he would consider Evan for the job. Jim had some concerns about hiring his friend’s son, but he’d known Evan since he was born, and was reasonably confident that between them, he and Scott could handle any challenges that might arise. Once Evan was on board, Jim could see that basic training and four years of bench experience had rendered him moderately competent, and that, as his father described, he had a lot of potential. He seemed to take well to the idea of a fresh start in a different part of the country and was grateful for the opportunity.

ABOUT REAL DEAL

Real Deal is a fictional scenario designed to read like real-life business events. The businesses and people mentioned in this story should not be confused with actual jewelry businesses and people.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kate Peterson is president and CEO of Performance Concepts, a management consultancy for jewelers. Email her at [email protected]

Evan started off pretty well, and over the first two years, his skills improved as Jim provided ongoing training and continued to challenge him with more complex jobs. As the second year came to a close, however, Evan’s reliability started to become an issue. Work was still getting done well and generally on schedule, but Evan was frequently late and out sick more than normal. He said that he was just going through an especially tough time, with everything from his car dying to dealing with allergies and a series of other minor health issues, but that things were heading in a positive direction, and he would definitely get it all under control.

Evan was paid well, but with old debt, was still struggling for cash. In an effort to help (and hopefully, to minimize punctuality and attendance issues), Jim offered him the option of living in the small studio apartment above the store at no cost in lieu of a pay increase as he entered his third year with the company. Evan accepted Jim’s generous offer, but his reliability did not improve much. He was still late several days each week, spent increasing amounts of time behind the building smoking e-cigarettes, and began disappearing to his apartment for periods of time during the day.

Jim suspected a return to the excessive alcohol and/or drug use issues his friend’s son had battled before a stay in rehab and his move south, but when confronted, Evan angrily denied the suspicions. Unable to prove anything, Jim felt that his hands were tied. He told Evan that being at the bench on time was a condition of employment, that he was no longer permitted to leave the store without direct permission, and that all breaks and lunches must be approved. Once again, Evan apologized and promised improvement.

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Another year went by with what appeared to be moderate progress. There were still issues, including even more frequent “smoke breaks,” but the number of late arrivals had diminished, and the sick time had tapered off a bit, as did Evan’s visits to his upstairs apartment during business hours. There were a few staff complaints about “surly, temperamental behavior,” but Jim thought they were pretty routine. Evan’s skill level didn’t seem to improve much that year, but work was getting done. With business on the increase, Jim had little available time to babysit.

At the end of last year, Evan took two weeks off after the holidays to visit his dad back home. While he was away, one female employee made what she referred to as an “official complaint” accusing Evan of sexual harassment. She also described multiple instances of seeing Evan pouring vodka into his water bottle in the store. Another told Jim that Evan had actually been vaping weed behind the store during work hours. She knew because he had invited her to join him, and because he also offered to sell weed (still illegal in the state) to her and to other employees.

It was clear to Jim at that point that Evan had to go. The James, Ltd. Employee Manual made it very clear that harassment of any kind would not be tolerated and that drug or alcohol use on the job was cause for immediate termination. He chose to have the conversation by phone rather than wait for him to get back, so Evan could take the time to decide if he wanted to stay with his dad. Jim then decided he owed it to Scott to give him a heads-up before talking to Evan to explain why he felt he had to fire his son. Jim was firmly convinced that Evan needed help, and believed he owed it to his friend to fill him in.

The day after the termination call, Evan sent Jim an email demanding that he deposit a $25,000 “severance payment” into his bank account. He threatened that if Jim refused, he would sue for wrongful termination and violation of employee confidentiality since Jim had spoken to his father about his employment situation. Jim knew that his actions were based on genuine concern for his business and for Evan’s well-being. He also understood Evan’s anger and need to lash out, but he was caught totally off guard by what he perceived as a clear-cut extortion attempt.

The Big Questions

  • Was terminating Evan the right call without further investigation of the harassment complaint or direct proof of drug or alcohol use?
  • Did Jim violate employment law by talking with Scott about the situation with his son?
  • Should he reach out to his friend again with a request for help in getting Evan to back off — or should he retain an employment attorney?
Brian W.
Greensboro, NC

Document, document, document. Have a store policy and follow it. First offense, verbal warning, document it. Second offense, written warning, have the associate sign and date it, make copies. Third offense, termination. You can always make exceptions, give multiple written warnings, give the guy a chance, but you want it all written down. Failure to follow through may be harmful to not only your business, but more importantly to your other associates. Yes, it was right to fire him. Yes, hire an employment attorney, and document who (which associate) said what, when and where. He might need it if the former associate actually follows through with his threats.

Christine H.
Lemoyne, PA

Even though positive intent was there, Evan’s father should not have been contacted nor his son’s employment discussed. Evan is an adult and deserves confidentiality about his employment. The owner should have had an exploratory conversation with Evan first to determine if the accusations were true. My opinion is it would have been best to wait for Evan to come back to discuss face to face. The owner should have also talked to the other employees mentioned in the complaints to see if there were witnesses or other interactions with Evan that should have been considered prior to his discussion with Evan, so he had a full scope view of his team’s observations. The owner should then have asked Evan questions to gain clarity about why he was late, taking multiple breaks, etc. Then an educated decision could have been made about his employment.

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Susan O.
Kirkland, WA

The termination of Evan was way past due and not worth risking the well-being of the business and employees. In Washington, a person can be terminated with no reason given, but in this case, a “This is not working out” is all that is needed. I do not feel there is any need for concern about a lawsuit considering the egregious behavior that has gone on and that you have been condoning by letting it go on for several years. Any suspicion of drugs or alcohol in our business is dealt with immediately. Again, the welfare of the business is the priority, and Evan is lashing out and needs an intervention. The tenancy is another issue altogether, and Evan may have tenant rights in your state that you need to adhere to.

Kent C.
St. Simon’s Island, GA

Is it permissible in this state to spank Evan? It appears he is an irresponsible child. I would send him back to his father with out any supper. Dismiss the threat of blackmail as simply another attempt of Evan’s self-centered thinking. If proper records were kept prior to firing, I wouldn’t be concerned. How many times has this spoiled boy failed at rehab, other jobs, and at school? The father should have been open with his friend, the store owner, about how dysfunctional the boy’s bad habits were. Somewhere along the line, the store owner must accept his enabling behavior. Allowing Evan to screw up is the perfect lesson to the rest of Jim’s staff. Talk about a bad apple ruining the rest. His father should be asked to come pick up any possessions and Evan should be banned from the store.

Marc F.
Houston, TX

I think the owner tried his best to help the friend’s son out. Five years of employment is a long time. How much was invested in him? I don’t allow “trial by ambush.” The owner should have instructed the employee making the allegations to put it in writing. When Evan comes back, have a private meeting and show him the letter, see which way he reacts. Based on that, have your attorney mediator sit down with Evan, the accuser, and the owner, and come to an agreement. All this was hearsay, you must remember. Bringing in Evan’s dad as a pal to pal isn’t doing anyone any good. Whatever happens, he will understand. Take things step by step cautiously and with prudence.

Marcus M.
Midland, TX

Terminating Evan was definitely the right call. Jim had his concerns, and those were cemented with the complaints from his employees. Evan is a bad apple, and his behavior is spot-on with that of an addict. He needs help and hopefully he’ll get it. But if I were Jim, I would tell him he can take his severance demand and threats and shove them. Jim gave him more than his fair share of chances, and Evan took advantage of him. Maybe once Evan settles down, Scott can talk sense into him, then he’ll realize he’s in the wrong and drop the threats. I would definitely hire an employment attorney, though, just in case this guy gets real crazy.

Stacey H.
Lincolnwood, IL

Hire an employment attorney. There should have been a series of warnings, write-ups, and a serious conversation about standards each time with a signed “I understand that I have been put on notice about my behavior” note for his personnel file. Once he hired his friend’s kid, all bets were off with the father. He never should have discussed personnel matters with anyone but the employee(s) involved. The matter of the offer of drug dealing might be the way to deflect a lawsuit, but this was bungled.

Bruce A.
Sherwood Park, AB

Regardless of Jim’s compassion, he has left himself open for potential litigation. His first course of action should have been a discussion with his own lawyer on the legal (and proper) handling of employee termination. The regulations vary from various countries and between states and provinces. But all regulations share similar and basic employee protections. By Jim ignoring his own availability to legal council, he has entered the gladiator ring with nary a sword nor a shield!

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Kate Peterson is president and CEO of Performance Concepts, a management consultancy for jewelers. Email her at [email protected].

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