Fired Over 2 Cents. Where’s the Limit of Reason?

by Darwin on September 7, 2010

I read a seemingly ridiculous news item today (Reuters) that a company in Germany fired a 19 year employee because he recharged his Segway scooter at work with the company’s electrical outlet and in doing so, consumed the equivalent of 2 cents worth of electricity.  Fortunately for him, a German court reinstated him.  There were few details on the company, their rebuttal or other details, but on the face of it, this sounds rather ludicrous.  Granted, I’ve been involved in workplace firings in my manufacturing days and there was often more to it (like say, was he warned several times before not to do so and that he would be terminated if he continued to violate a known company policy?  Did he lie during an investigation?  Did he burst into a rage and get fired for the ensuing argument that followed?).

What Is Reasonable and What Is Not?

This is something companies struggle with all the time.  Personally, I’m surprised, especially in such a labor-friendly company as Germany, that the company took this route, and then lost, questioning the prudence of their decision.  But as a commenter stated in the article, have you ever taken a pencil home from work?  While that may sound trivial, what if it was a box of pens?  What if you’re routinely taking home boxes of stationary and office equipment for personal use?  How about improper use of the company expense account?  We all saw what just happened to Mark Hurd, the former CEO of HP (and now, proud employee of Oracle).  Where do you draw the line?  Companies need to set rules and follow them; but we all know there’s also room for judgment.

Similar to even criminal law, how there are mandatory sentences in some case and judicial prudence exercised in other cases, sometimes, rigid rules are put in place to deter and punish the worst offenders but they end up snagging relatively naive and/or innocent folks along the way.  I can think of a few firings both in my workplace and from stories I’ve heard from others that show there’s little consistency across companies, situations, or even sometimes, within a specific business unit.  Much depends on timing, who’s in charge, who investigated, the situation, and possibly, more nefarious factors, like what the employee’s pay structure looks like, how old they are, whether they are in a protected group, etc.

Firings I’m Familiar With

  • Employee was abusing cell phone (back when the company had to pay for minutes).  The backstory is that this employee was carrying on with another employee for months even while both were married – and they were constantly on the phone since they worked opposing shifts.  While the behavior was obvious to co-workers and inappropriate from an ethical standpoint, adultery alone generally insufficient for termination outside of military roles.  However, the relationship was leading to tons of wasted time and productivity and then the easiest “formal” violation to nail them on was improper use of company assets.  Cut and dry.  So, even though it may have been just a technicality to execute the desired outcome, there was no arbitration, no court ruling, they were just escorted offsite and that was that.
  • Viewing Inappropriate Content on the Internet – This one plays itself out over and over yet some employees are so obsessed with this stuff that they seem to be unable to help themselves.  Even though the risk of getting caught is quite high with all the company monitoring technology out there, and even though the consequences are well-known, I know of several folks who have been terminated before for doing just that.
  • Lying During an Investigation – This one was somewhat common during my Operations days.  An operator or supervisor makes a mistake that alone, would not have resulted in termination – perhaps a slap on the wrist or a ding on the annual review, but they would have maintained their job.  But, for whatever reason, while trying to determine exactly what happened to both settle any potential quality/technical issues, and also, to prevent re-occurrence, they opted to lie about the circumstances and get caught.

There are a few more out there that come to mind, but back to the point.  Based on the relatively scant details, it seems as though the termination in question over charging an item at work seems pretty ridiculous.  I know of people who charge their cell phones at work, pay their bills over lunch, use the company mail-room for those bills, etc.  Their rationale surely is that it’s not impacting productivity and there’s no meaningful impact to the company’s bottom line.  However, I presume if the company wanted to be a stickler, they might be able to terminate.

Do You Have Any Ridiculous workplace Firing Stories?

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{ 2 trackbacks }

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October 19, 2010 at 9:38 pm
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1 traineeinvestor September 7, 2010 at 8:27 pm

While it does seem silly to fire someone over 2 cents worth of electricity, the decision to reinstate is also silly – it effectively says that stealing from your employer is ok which shifts the threshold for inappropriate conduct from whether it is ok to steal (apparently it is), to how much an employee is entitled to steal.

The better approach which my current and previous employers use is to set out guidelines on what employees are or are not entitled to do.

2 Finacial Uproar September 9, 2010 at 1:33 pm

Back when I worked at a grocery store, a guy got fired for stealing chocolate milk out of the cooler and drinking it. Of course, as you mentioned, they were looking for an excuse to fire him anyway. And yes, in case you’re wondering, he cried when he got fired.

3 jim September 12, 2010 at 7:49 pm

The only coworker I know who was terminated with cause was due to viewing “adult content” on the internet after multiple warnings.

Darwin's Finance Reply:

@jim, Wow, that one shouldn’t even require a warning. To have to be warned multiple times, he should have been fired for sheer stupidity!

4 Terry November 26, 2010 at 2:26 am

I had one long-term workplace where there was a policy specifically allowing employees to take home office supplies up to $3 per week.

We enjoyed great prices from Quill, especially with their quantity price breaks.

p.s. Quill is well-worth trying if you’re not familiar with them, they have multiple shipping points (fast and cheap) and they make big-box prices laughable.

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