Jim_Leyland_pregame_at_Dodger_Stadium (1).jpgJim Leyland, the now former manager for the Detroit Tigers, officially announced his resignation today. Under his tenure, which lasted eight seasons, Mr. Leyland took the Tigers to two World Series and had an overall record of 700-597.

An example in “what not to do” in managing a company’s human resources.

Mr. Leyland’s tenure with the Tigers can offer human resource professionals a few important insights on how to make decisions when it comes to terminating employees. And while I like Mr. Leyland and despite his success, his management style is a lesson in “what not to do” when it comes to managing your company’s human resource department. 

Again, I like Mr. Leyland and I have every reason to believe he knows as much or more about baseball than the cumulative insight of all of the past and current t-ball coaches, former high-school baseball players, writers, other “experts,” etc. that made up the loud and consistent constituency who previously called for Mr. Leyland’s job. 

The truth is, however, Mr. Leyland’s decision-making process in managing a baseball team is not something your company should follow when it comes to terminating an employee. This is because when it came to managing Mr. Leyland was known for managing on “instinct” rather than metrics. For example, in explaining major revisions to the starting line-up of the Tigers going into Game 4 of the American League Championship Series against the Red Sox, Mr. Leyland explained

I was laying on my couch at home last night watching the Dodgers and the Cardinals. And I just got to thinking … I think something had to be done … I did what I thought was the right thing to do … You can say I’m crazy, you can say I’m nuts, you can say I’m dumb, you can say whatever the hell you want. 

(If you read the full context of this quote, Mr. Leyland was making the point that his decision would mean pundits would be talking about it and him instead of his player Austin Jackson who had been struggling as the lead-off hitter for the Tigers. In other words, Mr. Leyland did what he routinely did – make decisions with an eye towards protecting his players – not a bad example to follow for any organization).

In assessing Mr. Leyland’s decision-making process, one critic described him as,

a relic of days gone by, where you managed by instinct and feel. Then, smart people realized that you can base decisions on the situation and cold, hard numbers, and “go by the gut” managers like Leyland became increasingly obsolete.

Regardless of whether you agree with this (I don’t), applying this sort of decision-making process to employment decisions is almost always going to set your company up for striking out when it comes to federal and Michigan employment law matters.

How Leyland’s Management Style Can Play out in Employment Discrimination Claims.

Consider for example a recent wrongful employment termination and discrimination lawsuit in which I represented the terminated employee.

In that lawsuit, the manager responsible for terminating the employee eagerly testified that her decision was made based on a “careful” and “deliberate” assessment of objective documentation that she had specifically asked the employee’s direct supervisor to prepare. In other words, this appeared to be an “anti-Leyland” decision to terminate an employee.

The problem with the manager’s story, however, was that the decision-making process she testified to going through did not happen. Instead, the manager confirmed that the information she used to “carefully” and “deliberately” terminate the employee was sent by email as several attachments. When shown this email, the manager admitted it was sent on a Wednesday at 7:42 PM.

However, another manager, the human resource manager, had already advised the employee that morning he was terminated. In other words, there was over (at least) an 11 hour discrepency between the termination and when the manager could have even opened the email containing the documents she purportedly relied upon in terminating the employee.    

Confronted with this undisputed timeline, the manager’s testimony changed to assurances that the managers had “probably” talked prior to terminating the employee and that the manager “could have reviewed” some documents prior to terminating the employee. But when pressed about the significant discrepancies and what actually happened (as opposed to what “could have” happened), the defendant company’s manager was unable to recall a single conversation or reviewing a single document before making the decision to terminate this employee.

The manager eventually admitted, taking a page from Mr. Leyland’s management book, that she relied only on her “belief” that the terminated employee was not a “team player.” It doesn’t take a MLB manager to tell you that subjective “belief” is not even in the ballpark of “careful” and “deliberate” decision-making process when it comes to terminating an employee, especially when your company tries to substantiate that “belief” after the fact.

Closing Thoughts on Managing an Employee Termination. 

Again, I like Mr. Leyland and I appreciate what he has done for Michigan and the Tigers. But using “guts,” instinct, or beliefs for managing your company’s human resources is no way to run a successful company. This is especially true – as the above deposition testimony shows – where there is almost always a paper trail to create a documented timeline of events. And if your company’s human resource professional or managers’ beliefs or instincts don’t match up with that timeline, it is that much easier to attack the termination decision vis-a-vis the process that went into making that decision.

Once a company’s decision-making process is called into question, employers should expect any close calls, i.e., factual determinations, will no longer be resolved as a matter of law, which means a jury is going to decide those issues. And similar to an umpire, sometimes juries make the wrong call, which can change the outcome of a game. For this reason alone, it is important to not only make the right call when it comes to terminating an employee, but to be able to back up the decision with objective, documented reasons.  

For more information about eliminating and managing employment law risks, including investigating employee misconduct or properly terminating the employment relationship, contact Jason Shinn. Mr. Shinn is a Michigan employment law attorney who has represented employers and individuals since 2001. Photograph is from the Wikimedia Commons.