Did you libel your employee in a panic and then find out you were wrong? Never be afraid to say you're sorry.
"Love means having to say you're sorry." Wait a minute. Is that a typo?
No. Erich Segal, I beg to differ. As anyone who has a life knows, love means having to say you're sorry a lot. And that goes for employers, too. The company apology is a fine thing, as long as it is sincere, not a "non-apology apology," and accompanied by what they call a "firm purpose of amendment."
If you don't apologize when you should, then you won't have an incriminating statement that can be used against you in a lawsuit.
But if you do apologize when you should, you may never get that lawsuit at all.
Don't take my word for this. A recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit* will be far more persuasive than I could ever be.
*The Eighth Circuit hears appeals from federal district courts in the states of Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota.
A retail chain expected its sales clerks to input customers' telephone numbers when processing refunds. Human nature being what it is, the clerks quickly learned that it was a lot easier to simply enter "555-5555" instead of the individuals' actual phone numbers, and so that's what they did.
A sales clerk who obviously had way too much time on his hands (we'll call him D. Duke) entered a racist epithet in the system that was one of the names associated with the default phone number. Mr. Duke, being a bad egg, was subsequently fired for other reasons, but his "calling card" lived on, undiscovered, in the bowels of the system.
One fine day our plaintiff (we'll call her Wealthie, because she's probably gonna be very soon) was waiting on an African-American customer who was making a return. Wealthie decided that the default number would be the quickest way to get the gentleman his refund promptly, so she entered "555-5555" in the register, selected the racist name without looking at it, printed out and signed the receipt without reading it, handed it to the gentleman, and no doubt smiled and wished him a nice rest of the day.
The gentleman read his receipt. BAM! Thinking that Wealthie was the perpetrator, he and his family raised Cain with the store. BAM! BAM! Poor Wealthie had no idea how that bad word got onto the gentleman's receipt, but since she was the clerk who waited on him, she was blamed and promptly dismissed from employment. BAM!BAM!BAM!BAM!BAM!
Q. Thus far, has the employer done anything illegal?
A. Probably not. The employer had a reasonable basis for believing that Wealthie had done something to cause that racist epithet to be printed on the gentleman's receipt. The employer doesn't have to prove that Wealthie is "guilty beyond a reasonable doubt" as long as it had an honest, good-faith belief that she had committed misconduct warranting termination.
OK, back to our story . . .
The story of the racist receipt went, if you'll pardon the cliché, viral on Facebook and everywhere else. The employer, faced with some major public relations problems, decided to issue a press release. The press release apologized profusely (good), said that the company was "sickened and saddened" about the incident (good), and said that the employee responsible was fired. Wealthie was not identified by name.
Well, I tell you what - those folks on Facebook are good for a lot more than taking courageous stands in favor of the painfully obvious, Yelping the patty melt they ate for lunch, and Bejeweled Blitzing. They actually figured out that Wealthie was the clerk who had waited on the gentleman, and then began posting on Facebook and all over the internet the name of the "racist." Wealthie became so afraid for her safety that she left her child to live with her dad and went into hiding.
Meanwhile, within two days of Wealthie's termination, the company's IT folks figured out that the racist code had been put into the system by D. Duke and that poor Wealthie had been a mere victim of circumstance. At worst, she was guilty of having used the "lazy" default phone number instead of her customer's actual number. And maybe she should have been paying more attention to what she was doing, but who'd a thunk???
Now that the company knows the truth, guess the outcome!
After realizing that Wealthie was innocent, the company
a. Promptly issued another press release saying that the clerk who had waited on the gentleman turned out to be completely innocent and was not responsible for the epithet on the receipt, and that the real perpetrator had been fired long before but had apparently left this in the system as a "parting gift"; and personally apologized to Wealthie and offered to bring her back to work with back pay and no break in seniority; or
b. Issued a vague, wishy-washy follow-up press release that did not perzackly correct the record or clear Wealthie's name.