The words, "You're fired," are familiar ones to Donald Trump, and this week, he got to use them from the Oval Office.
The president on Monday fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates, an Obama appointee, after she refused to defend his executive order banning travel to the United States to citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries. He replaced her with Dana Boente, U.S. attorney from the Eastern District of Virginia.
In a strongly-worded statement atypical for the White House, Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Yates had "betrayed" the Department of Justice and called her "weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration." Trump earlier in the day complained about Senate Democrats' delay in confirming his appointments, including Senator Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, on Twitter.Still, there's always something to learn from someone else's mistakes.
Whether it's an object lesson in common sense or a startling legal quirk, tales of disaster usually have some bits of insight tuc ked away in there. That's just as true in the labor market as anywhere else.
Reading up on what gets people fired is good for more than just a bit of schadenfreude. It can actually pack some important lessons about how employment law works… not to mention when it doesn't.
That goes double for the particularly compelling cases. Here are ten of the most absurd, notable, interesting and instructive recent firings:
Editors' pick: Originally published Jan. 12
Telstra is a mobile phone company out in Australia, the largest telecommunications firm in the country. So it must have come as quite a surprise to senior management when it learned that Chief Technology Officer Vish Nandlall had allegedly forged credentials on his resume.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian, Nandlall has spent much of his career claiming to have a Harvard MBA and a PhD (through his use of the honorific "Dr." Nandlall). He appears to have neither.
It's an object lesson in one of the oldest rules of the job market: don't fake your resume. Once a credential is on there, it's almost impossible to get rid of, and someday down the line, someone might start asking questions.
In employment law, there's a concept called "constructive termination," and every working person should know about it.
It's the idea that if your boss abuses his authority, you have the right to leave and call it a firing (thus triggering unemployment protections). Your boss can't cloak his own misdeeds in virtue by saying you chose to quit.
This brings us to the police department of Bunker Hill, Ind., which earlier this year resigned en masse over repeated abuses of power by the local town council. According to officers, council members would demand favors such as "background checks on other town councilors" and other "illegal, unethical and immoral things."
It may be cold comfort, but at least these cops can collect their severance pay.
Where to even begin?
Social media has become one of the signature question marks of the Internet Era. As a platform it can bring us everything from the sublime to the adorable. At the same time, it can act as the sloppy backroom of the internet, the equivalent of fixing a global megaphone to drunken bar room conversation.
The result is everything from off-color jokes to horrifying rants made public, and it can often cost people their jobs. Whether it's airing those personal demons or bragging about taking a fake sick day remember… on Twitter your boss, mom and priest are all listening.
No number of likes is worth a pink slip.
Earlier this year cartoonist Rick Friday published his Friday piece in the Farm News. In the cartoon, two men chat about life as a farmer, with the following dialogue:
"I wish there was more profit in farming."
Although lacking the blend of wit with commentary that makes a particularly sharp editorial cartoon, Friday got his point across: big business makes money, not the little guys.
By the next day, he had been fired from the Farm News. According to a Facebook post by Friday, one of the companies "mentioned in the cartoon was insulted and cancelled their advertisement with the paper," resulting in that rare moment of being fired for criticizing someone else's boss.
Here's the thing. As an employee of almost any stripe, you'll likely sign your walking papers by assaulting someone on company property.
It's even worse to take a swing at a journalist, because that's a good way to turn a minor police report into a front page incident.
That's all well-trodden ground though. So it took real creativity for Melissa Click to expand on this territory. She managed to pull it off, though, with her decision to assault a student journalist who was trying to photograph on-campus protests at the University of Missouri.
Her famous rallying cry of "I need some muscle over here" should be printed up on T-shirts they can hand out at poorly thought through frat parties that end up on CNN. The best part about it all though? Click was a journalism professor.
Let's all agree on a few things for the survival of decent society, O.K.?
Number one, do not harass coffee shop clerks who don't stroke your holiday ego. They are not in charge of compensating for your discovery that Santa isn't real; they're here to make lattes.
Number two, we can and should all chew with our mouths closed.
Number three, when a soldier lowers the flag to half-mast on Memorial Day in honor of some lost friends, the absolute, literal least you can do is leave the guy alone to his ceremony.
Apparently this last was too much for a Charlotte company, which reportedly chose to fire Marine Corps veteran Allen Thornwell for doing just that. His employer said that it was disturbed by Thornwell's "passion for the flag and (his) political affiliation," and that's the double edged sword of at-will employment. Thornwell will hopefully find work soon, but his employer was perfectly free to let him go.
Let's revisit social media, because it's something we will all have to continue getting used to. As Millennials scrub their online footprints, terrified that even an innocent happy hour could cost them their job, other users take… a different approach.
Consider, for example, Jane Wood Allen, an employee of the Forsyth, Georgia school district who was fired for a Facebook post about First Lady Michelle Obama that began with "This poor Gorilla."
Allen's story is nothing all that rare, but it raises a particularly thorny issue. You see, while Forsyth County's decision to fire Wood makes sense from a standpoint of damage control, it may not be legal. As a public employer, schools have to respect some First Amendment rights of their staff.
Private statements made on private time from Wood's own computer may be well beyond the reach of a school district to punish her for… no matter how good the reason.
When is a firing just not worth it? When it costs a decent portion of the employee's salary just to sort everything out.
Yet that's precisely what happened with a Decatur, Ga. school after it fired a popular media clerk. In the aftermath of Susan Riley's termination, allegedly over misuse of a school iPad, questions began popping up. To its credit, the district launched an investigation into what actually happened and whether to reverse Riley's firing.
After $14,757 in fees to a local attorney, it finally decided that a mistake had been made.
Good to clear that up, but maybe next time do a better job on the front end so you're less vulnerable when the employee claims she was fired to cover up for workplace harassment.
The case of Florida Atlantic University Professor James Tracy is an interesting one. In a nutshell, Tracy was fired for his long standing campaign that the Sandy Hook shooting never happened. This includes a blog, comments in any media he can find, and what parents of one victim have described as a pattern of personal harassment.
As a result, earlier this year he was fired from his tenured position at FAU for, among other things, using his university credentials to advance his cause. His subsequent lawsuit has been dismissed without prejudice.
While on its face, this is a victory for basic decency, the idea of a tenured professor getting fired for promoting ideas is also a troubling one. The very nature of tenure is to protect academics from retaliation no matter how mighty the opposition. Today we cheer a Sandy Hook truther's dismissal, but how many of us would feel the same way if it was a deeply hated critic of the Trump administration?
His supporters may find that liberal professor's ideas reprehensible, and Tracy's case may become a precedent.
After working for years in the family business, when Stephen Habberstad came out to his wife and siblings, the fallout reached well past his personal life and into his employment. During the divorce, he had to surrender enough stock to lose control of the family bank, which set the dominoes in motion for his speedy termination.
There's a silver lining here, though: Minnesota law supports sexual orientation discrimination suits, leading to a judgment in Habberstad's favor of $3.5 million.