HR Management & Compliance

“READ … MY … FAX!” Well, You Can’t Do That in the Real 2015

In yesterday’s Advisor we reviewed a few HR-related moments from Back to the Future: Part II to mark the date of Emmett “Doc” Brown and Marty McFly time-traveling to 2015. Today we address the moment in the movie most relevant to human resources—Future Marty’s termination via fax—and how, unlike the DeLorean, that just wouldn’t fly in the real 2015.
While the movie doesn’t get into the specific details of exactly what Future Marty did to warrant his firing, we’re told that his transaction with coworker Needles was “illegal” and that it would “solve all [Marty’s] financial problems.” In any case, within 10 seconds of scanning a card in his living room, Future Marty is getting screamed at via video phone by his boss, Ito T. Fujitsu (apparently nicknamed “The Jitz” by his employees). Marty is then terminated, and the message “YOU’RE FIRED!” is printed from every fax machine in the house—even the one in the bathroom.
Maybe you could get away with firing someone via fax in a world that has “abolished all lawyers” (see yesterday’s article for more on that), but in real life, it’s an HR nightmare.

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‘Think, McFly, Think!’
Let’s consider the implications of this on-screen firing. While on-the-spot terminations are sometimes necessary and prudent (such as one resulting from an incident of workplace violence), such scenarios are extremely rare. Firing an employee, even for lesser criminal activity, needs to be handled more deftly.
While we don’t know the details of Future Marty’s transaction with Needles, it can be assumed that it was some form of theft, or perhaps misuse of trade or company secrets—definitely a fire-able offense! However, the termination was handled very poorly. If this took place in the real 2015, Future Marty could’ve brought a lawsuit against his employer accusing it of, among other things:
Retaliation. Could this ambiguous transaction with Needles be construed as protected concerted activity? Probably not, but if so, a case can be made for retaliation. Terminating an employee who has engaged in a protected activity is a matter that should be approached with extreme caution.
Wrongful discharge. Needles was just as guilty of what transpired—was he fired from the plant as well? If not, Future Marty may have a case. A firing may result in a wrongful discharge claim which—even if not legitimate—is costly, unsettling, and a distraction to the workplace. For practical reasons, it might be prudent to terminate an employee only for substantial business reasons, such as demonstrating a continued inability to meet performance standards; consistently violating company policy; exhibiting violent behavior against another in the workplace; or engaging in criminal activity, such as embezzlement.
Hostile work environment or mental anguish. Not only was Fujitsu’s phone call abrupt and aggressive, but he also sent a demeaning fax to the entire household, embarrassing Future Marty publicly in front of family and friends. Conduct your termination meetings as privately as possible, at either the start or end of the workday. By doing so, an employee’s potential embarrassment may be reduced because fewer employees are in the office. Also, at least one other member of management should attend the meeting as a witness. While there aren’t technically antibullying laws yet, Fujitsu’s approach still might make an employer look bad in court.
The takeaway for HR pros: Even if you feel an employee is incredibly deserving of a quick and scathing dismissal, you need to take a step back, make sure you follow company policy and termination protocols, and ensure that you are not leaving yourself open to a lawsuit.

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‘What If The Jitz Is Monitoring?’
Oh, and we almost forgot another HR aspect of this scene—obviously it’s not OK for an employer to monitor an employee’s private telecommunications network. While it is permissible to monitor certain metrics and activities on company-owned devices, systems, and networks (that is, if your IT department has the time, resources, and inclination), the real 2015 isn’t so Orwellian as to allow companies to call employees at home, scream at them, and then summarily fire them via fax after intercepting a private communication.
Of course, employers with Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies might wonder what they can and cannot monitor … but now we’re getting into truly uncharted waters, legally speaking, and that’s an article for the future!