Business liable for firing someone based on a ‘rumor’

You might remember the “telephone game” in school, where the teacher would tell a student a secret. The student would pass the secret on to a classmate and it would circulate through the class. At the end, the last student would relate the secret and the class would learn how much the story had changed as it was passed along.

Businesses can experience a real-life telephone game in the form of rumors about people who work there. But employers who take action against employees based on unverified rumors risk being held responsible in court.

For example, a jury in Minnesota recently ordered the Marriott Hotel to pay damages to Jeff Moen, a bellhop who had been fired based on a rumor that he had brought a gun to a meeting with management and union representatives.

The bellhop had worked at the hotel for 22 years. Though he had been the subject of a couple of minor complaints early in his career, he had a glowing record in the five years before he was fired.

However, fellow bellhops began spreading rumors about him. Moen claimed this was because they were jealous over how well he was doing in tips.

One rumor was that he brought a .357 Magnum to a meeting with management and union representatives concerning an incident where he allegedly parked his car in the hotel lot without paying, and that he planned to use the gun if things didn’t go his way.

Upon hearing the rumor, management fired Moen the next day and told the union representatives about the supposed threat.

When Moen’s lawyer began investigating, the employee credited with starting the rumor denied hearing or repeating such a statement. Instead, he claimed that Moen, an avid hunter, had merely mentioned that he had bought a new gun. The employee repeated this fact to others, after which the story apparently took on a life of its own.

A jury awarded Moen his lost wages as well as money to compensate for the damage to his reputation.

Of course, when an employer hears that an employee might be planning a violent incident in the workplace, it has every obligation to act quickly. But the key is that it must investigate and have a reasonable basis for its actions before it disciplines or fires someone.