firings in literature: should this book character have been fired?

A reader writes:

I am a daily reader and great fan of your blog. I have a question about something I read in a Sue Grafton novel. (If you don’t want to answer a question about what somebody wrote in a novel, I understand!)

One of the characters, Walker McKnally, is the VP for new accounts at a bank in a small town. He drives drunk and kills a young woman. His car was found at the scene of the crash because his car crashed into the other one, obviously, and he was found a short distance away, drunk. He pleads not guilty, but really? Everyone knows what happened.

My husband and I were arguing about whether he should have lost his job and whether that would be considered wrongful termination. I said that if it were my bank, I would not want to have an accused drunk driving killer where there is not much doubt about his guilt working in a high-profile, public-facing position. My husband said employers shouldn’t be able to fire people just because they are accused of a crime. I reminded him that “innocent until proven guilty” applies to the government, not to private employers.

Neither of us know the proper definition of “wrongful termination” in an at-will state. I was just curious about what you might have to say.

I was SO EXCITED to get this question, and it made me want to have an entire week devoted to career/management questions from plot lines in literature, movies, and TV. Does this interest anyone other than me?  I am ON FIRE for this idea.

(By the way, speaking of books, I just finished reading The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, and it is utterly fantastic. Highly recommended.)

Okay, so back to this scoundrel Walker McKnally. Yes, his employer could have fired him even though he wasn’t convicted, because in at-will states employers can fire employees for any reason at all (or no reason), as long as it doesn’t violate a specific law.

People often think that “wrongful termination” means that you were fired for a wrong or unfair reason, but it really just means that you were fired for an illegal reason — that you were fired in violation of some legal right that you hold. For instance, wrongful termination would include being fired because of your membership in a legally protected class (race, sex, religion, etc.), or because you complained about harassment or some other legally protected conduct, or because you refused to perform in an illegal act. It would also include being fired in violation of the terms of a contract, although most people don’t have contracts. (And even if you do have a contract, it sometimes includes a “morals clause” that lets the employer fire you if you engage in behavior that tarnishes the reputation of the employer.)

But there’s no law preventing an employer from firing you because now the whole town thinks you killed a woman, even though you weren’t convicted.

So you win this bet.

More questions stemming from books/movies/TV? Email them to me at alison@askamanager.org, being sure to give sufficient context in case I don’t know the work (like this letter-writer did), and I’ll print answers in the next week.

{ 103 comments… read them below }

  1. Wilton Businessman

    Shouldn’t Batman (a private citizen) be arrested for assault on another private citizen (the Joker) when he beats him up? If the Joker had a good legal team, couldn’t he sue Bruce Wayne for the Wayne Mansion and thereby discover the bat cave underneath?

    1. Kelly O

      I have seriously always wondered how Batman got away with that. I mean, private citizen going all vigilante on other citizens… I mean, evil citizens obviously but still.

      Tangentially, I kind of wish we got to thump one person a day. Because I know some people who need red marks on their foreheads.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Isn’t it because Gotham was a semi-lawless place? That was always my assumption — that it didn’t have a smoothly functioning government and things were already sort of out of hand.

        1. ImpassionedPlatypi

          That’s true, but I’m pretty sure that even if Gotham’s government and police force weeded out all the corruption and got their acts together they still wouldn’t be able to actually catch Batman. And really, I think it’s unlikely that they would want to catch him. I think a few officials might make a push for it, but it wouldn’t work because most of the people in Gotham identify him as the driving force behind their streets becoming safer.

        2. jmkenrick

          Yeah, Gotham is super corrupt. There have been plotlines where dirty cops try to pin things on Batman/the good guys.

          Also, Batman does a great job of covering his tracks. Theoretically someone could sue him, but they couldn’t just let the police wander all over his place/find the Batcave without a warrant, which I believe you need probable cause to obtain.

          Lastly, the Batcave is well concealed in the house, so even if the police (who are often corrupt and could totally get away with faking a warrant in the Gotham world) according to most of the comics, it’s unlikely they would find it.

          I read a number of these comics as a kid. :)

          1. Natalie

            As far as I know, you wouldn’t be able to get a warrant for a civil suit. There is a discovery process, but I’m not entirely sure how it would work if you thought one party was hiding something.

      2. Anonymous

        I admittedly don’t read the batman comics and have only seen the movies once…

        But isn’t the whole point of Batman in that people don’t know who it is? It seems like it would be hard to draft up a case against Batman when you have no means to contact him, nor know who he really is.

        1. Tami

          Perhaps they suspect he is Batman and would attempt to prove it during trial through the discovery process…

        2. Dan Ruiz

          Yes. That’s what I was thinking. I’m also not an avid comic reader, but my understanding is as follows. The whole premise of super heroes getting away with vigilantism is that they have “secret identities”, and that in some cases (i.e. Batman) the authorities choose to ignore the clues that may lead them to uncover the hero.

    2. Wasted Childhood

      On the TV series I watched as a kid, Batman was an “honorary” duly deputized law officer so he could arrest people. Also, apparently in Gotham, cops also get to beat people up.

      Nowadays, in the graphic novels (not comic books, if you please), Batman is considered a vigilante, and half the cops think he’s a hero and the other half are hunting him down.

    3. Samie

      My two cent. The biggest reason that Batman could not be arrested is the point of his alter ego is that no one suspects that Bruce Wayne would be Batman.

      After all, think of it this way: Bruce Wayne is THE richest man in Gotham, with enough influence and money that he could probably pay to have things go his way. Why on earth would a guy like this go around beating people up?

      Think of Dark Knight Rising:
      Lucius Fox: “Let me get this straight: You think that your client, one of the wealthiest, most powerful men in the world, is secretly a vigilante who spends his nights beating criminals to a pulp with his bare hands. And your plan is to blackmail this person? Good luck. “

    4. Batman Fan

      Actually if you go through the comics and movies, they did try it quite a number of times. But Commissioner Gordon always saw to it that Batman was always let off, not that they were successful in catching him. But they did implicate Bruce Wayne in a murder though, but he was proved to be innocent.

    1. Anonymous

      Exempt. He has a lot of decision making capability and managerial functions.

      That’s my vote.

      Oracle though, when working for Batman, would be non-exempt. But mostly she’s an independent contractor working with for him on a case by case basis.

        1. Mike C.

          I’m almost positive that folks in that profession are not allowed to unionize. It goes back to the time when the laws were first being made and there is a list of professions that cannot unionize. If you’re bored, look up the list and see if you can spot the common thread.

  2. Wilton Businessman

    Can Batman claim bat-fuel for the batmobile on his monthly expense report to Commissioner Gordon?

    1. Anonymous

      Wilton Businessman, you seem like the type for a little vigilante action on the side. Careful, if you get too excited you’ll blow your cover!

      1. Wilton Businessman

        Maybe. But if he’s not getting paid (we can assume), how do his expenses get covered. Kind of like a soup kitchen where you pickup the food and the charity pays you back? Or doesn’t that happen? So many questions…

        1. Mike C.

          I always figured his expenses were covered by the fact he was a big time business man he spent his money on spandex costumes and odd toys.

          1. Wilton Businessman

            I didn’t even think of the spandex. Does this fall under “uniform expenses” or since he is a volunteer is it on his own dime?

      2. Ask a Manager Post author

        I think you can expense stuff even when you’re not getting paid. For instance, volunteers will get reimbursed for expenses they make in the line of duty.

        1. Wilton Businessman

          Thank you for indulging my silliness. Sometimes we take business to serious and need a little levity. But I must go now, my land-line is ringing.

  3. Anonymous

    “Innocent until proven guilty”. Hah! Yeah right, not anymore. You may be innocent in the eyes of the court, but you’re guilty in the eyes of the public. Enjoy having your life ruined once you’re accused of something. May not end up in a prison of bars, but you’ll be in another type of prison.

    1. fposte

      Mind you, the character in question *did* do it. So he’s not really in a position to complain about this, and not just because he’s fictional.

  4. KayDay

    Could you clarify the sentence, “because you complained about harassment or some other legally protected conduct, or because you refused to perform in an illegal act.” (Sorry I don’t have a movie reference to include!)

    My friend was fired after she reported her manager’s illegal behavior. She has since found work and has decided not to pursue the matter; but I was wondering if she would be in a protected class as a “whistle blower.” Or does that only apply to governments and organizations with a specific whistle blower policy?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      It would depend on the specifics of the illegal conduct she reported, and the state she’s in, because the scope of the laws are pretty varied. Some states have very narrowly defined protections, and others are more broad.

        1. Nyxalinth

          f. If you’re complaining about a boss or coworker embezzling, stealing, or doing something TO the company, as opposed to on behalf of the company, you’re probably not protected from retaliation. You’d be surprised how many people get fired for reporting someone ripping off the company. Silly, yes, but there you have it. Killing the messenger is alive and well.

          So, apparently the coimpany can say “Hey thanks for saving us hundreds of thousands of dollars by reporting the VP for embezzling! By the way, you’re fired.” Nice to know you get a big Eff You for this.

          1. K

            @Nyxalinth: Wow. just wow. I’ll remember that for the next time I see someone embezzling.

            @Fposte and AAM: Thanks! this situation has bothered me since it happened. I understand why my friend didn’t want the hassle, expense, and exposure of a lawsuit, but I have always wondered what the result would have been had she sued.

            FYI, the manager in question was effectively stealing from customers.

    2. Long Time Admin

      One of the biggest big-wigs at the world’s largest retailer home office was found guilty of using company funds for personal use. The people under him, who knew what he was doing, were threatened by him with job loss, being blackballed, etc. (He was a scary guy when he got mad.) Of course, they were also arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced. The big-wig is serving his sentence at home, on his ranch, in luxury. His fine was less than my yearly income, and he didn’t even feel it.

      I wish Batman was here.

  5. Kimberlee

    I LOVE this idea. And I think Wilton up there, and many other readers, would probably love http://lawandthemultiverse.com/. It’s a blog where lawyers discuss the legal implications of the happenings of comic books (and occasionally movies). It’s SUPER good (and Alison, it might give you some inspiration!)

  6. ImpassionedPlatypi

    Ooo, I really love the TV/movies/books/comics idea! I think those posts will be extra fun to read. Though, I am a little worried that most of the questions you could pull from various media like that are going to be a little too clear cut… I mean, as fun as it might be to pick apart House’s management style, it’s not like there’s going to be any debate about the fact that he’s a bad manager.

    Now that I think about it, I think I might find it more interesting if Alison just did a list of fictional characters who she would consider good managers, and why.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I’m having trouble even thinking of many managers from literature, but if you guys want to email me specific scenarios (like what the OP did), with enough context that I can answer even if I don’t know the book, I’d love to tackle them!

        1. Jamie

          I can’t wait for this. I know he’s supposed to be the bad guy and all – but if Bob Cratchit could have gotten a better gig elsewhere he should have.

          I really hate the sense of entitlement in the whole Scrooge thing and don’t even get me started on him tearing up the debt at the end. So people who can’t pay their legal debts to a business are the victims and he’s a villain for trying to collect what’s owed him? And he’s a decent person when he forgives this debt – so in order to be a good person you need to be a lousy businessman.

          Does he have to do this every year? Because if these people borrow more (and they will) and he doesn’t forgive all of his AR accruals in an insane amnesty every year will he again be the bad guy?

          It’s such a beautifully crafted story I have a compulsion to watch every version, but I really hate the message it sends. My kids know with the opening strains of any version of A Christmas Carol that an economics lesson is coming.

          The same way that whenever Robin Hood came on I used it to teach them the evils (to me) of communism.

          1. jmkenrick

            Have you read the original book? Charles Dickens was not a communist, but rather against the classist system that characterized nineteenth century industrial capitalism, particularly horrible labor conditions and the practice of child labor/selling kids. Many of his other famous works (notably Oliver Twist) have similar themes.

            It’s certainly true that now companies have many more legal restrictions on how they can treat their employees, making many of Dickens’ points moot. (Well, maybe not on in other countries. But you catch my drift.) However, most modern people would probably agree with a lot of the tenants that Dickens promoted throughout his life (that is, we’re generally for class mobility and against child labor). He was also criticizing a the elite for claiming Christian values without showing them in practice.

            I think it’s worth considering Dickens’ books within the context of their time. They make much more sense that way. As a literature lover, I would definitely argue that this is an opportunity not only to make this a lesson on economics, but also on the value of contextualizing facts to get the whole picture.

            (Can’t comment on Robin Hood – not as familiar with it.)

              1. Anonymous

                I’m just surprised that you think Jamie should be telling her children that there’s somehow something wrong with the poor dying if they can’t afford to live.

              2. Jamie

                Of course not – and for the record I am not in favor of death.

                I was arguing against the notion that the lines between business and charity are blurry and celebrating really bad business moves doesn’t help anyone. The poor people were momentarily better off when he forgave the debt – but the practice would put lenders out of business and then they would be in even worse straits down the road.

            1. Jamie

              I didn’t attribute communism to Charles Dickens – I was referring to Robin Hood with the communism comment.

              I do see your points regarding Dickens’ other works – my point was merely that what many people take away from the one constant of the versions of a Christmas Carol is that Scrooge was despicable when he was trying to collect the monies legally owed to him and a hero when he forgave all the debt.

              He was in the business of lending money and collecting the principle+ interest. He was the credit card of his day, if you will. While it would be a nice fairy tale to have Visa forgive all of our debt one Christmas…if that happened people would run up more debt if they felt they didn’t need to repay. That’s a recipe of a collapse of a company – and if widespread enough – an economy.

              I just have a problem with the message that by wiping out all of his AR accruals he was a better person. How long could he stay in business?

              1. jmkenrick

                That’s definitely true. I’m gathering that I look at the book as a much more bigger picture issue. But certainly on an individual level you can’t expect people to just ignore debts.

  7. Dawn

    Yes, that would be awesome to have an entire week devoted to film and lit!

    That aside, even though everyone is innocent until proven guilty and shouldn’t be fired just because they are accused, I believe most employers would terminate the person. The employer likely wouldn’t want to deal with all the publicity the accused receives and might feel there’s a lot of risk in keeping the person on.

  8. class factotum

    I wrote this letter to Alison and am so excited that she answered it!

    For anyone who wants to read the book, where he was NOT fired, at least not because of the drunk driving/manslaughter, which just didn’t ring true to me (along with one of the flashback scenes set in the 1960s including references to registered sex offenders – did they even have them back then?), it’s part of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone series. This one is “U is for Undertow.”

  9. ES

    I would like to know what you think of Kristy Thomas’s management style from The Babysitter’s Club series.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Never read that series! But if you want to email a specific scenario like the OP did (also with a book I haven’t read), I’d be glad to take it on.

  10. negot8or

    In real life, most employers do NOT fire an individual who has been accused of a crime (even a heinous one) during the period of time in which the court system is still processing the accused. They simply don’t want even the POTENTIAL of a legal headache. So they can put them on extended leave (without pay eventually) and then wait for the process to finish. Once done, they can let the legal system decide their fate – ie: someone who goes to jail isn’t coming back to work.

      1. negot8or

        I didn’t say that they HAD to. I said that most do because of a fear of litigation. You are correct that employers in at will states can fire anyone at any time for any (non-protected class discriminatory) reason.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          To some extent it’s a myth that employers hardly ever do X because of fear of litigation — whether X is this or anything else where people say that. It’s absolutely true that it might be common for an employer not to do X out of fear of litigation, but it’s rarely so common that it becomes “employers almost never do X because of fear of litigation.” More accurately, it’s “some employers won’t do X because of fear of litigation.”

          Sorry, pet peeve of mine.

          1. Mike C.

            I have to agree here – there are tons of businesses out there that are fairly ignorant about the law and pretty much do whatever the heck they want.

            1. anon

              I wonder whether the employer could reasonably claim frustration of contract? if the employee is in jail, (s)he is necessarily unable to carry out their duties.

  11. Ask a Manager Post author

    Okay, let me state the rules for anyone who has a literary/TV/movie situation to posit: Write it up with sufficient context like the OP did (since I or others may not be familiar with the work), then email it to me at alison@askamanager.org. (You’re welcome to post it here, but I can’t promise an in-depth answer here.) I’ll update the post to say this too.

  12. Cary

    So in Canada I don’t think you could fire this employee until there was a firm conviction as you can’t discriminate against someone on the basis of a criminal conviction not related to the job. That said you can fire someone on the basis there conduct brings your business in to disrepute. There’s at least one Stanley Cup rioter (and one woman who flashed player during a game) who found that out to their cost.

    Also there’s many definitions of wrongful dismissal in Canada. One of the main ones is firing for cause (EE does something to rupture the ER/EE relationship so that the employment contract is effectively broken so they are not paid a severance) when there was no cause.

  13. Christine

    What a great theme idea!! I watch General Hospital, and I can think of several characters right off the bat who are in management/senior staff roles that I wouldn’t mind picking apart. Can’t think of any specific scenarios off the bat, but just general patterns. A good portion of the show is set in a major hospital, and the workplace dynamics are interesting to watch.

  14. Sheila

    I love this idea – and I remember reading that Grafton book and also thinking that the guy would have been fired due to the negative PR he’d have brought onto the business.

    Now I’m trying to think of fictional workplace situations I can ask about…

  15. jmkenrick

    What about almost every cop movie ever where the cop gets fired/taken off the case, and then solves it (breaking a lot of laws in the process) to great success? Should they be rehired despite their insubordinate behavior? (For other cop movies: should they be fired for working on a case they were ordered to stay off of?)

    The TV show Castle is the only example I can think of now, but I know there are a lot more…

    1. lm

      Similarly, every medical drama has at least one doctor who won’t play by the rules and disobeys direct orders (on Grey’s Anatomy, nearly every doctor at some time or another).

      Actually, speaking of Grey’s Anatomy, is there anything functional about that workplace? I’d say that it’s too far-fetched that most of the characters still have jobs, but based on some of the emails posted here it may not be so far from reality.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        For some reason, I never watch medical shows but I love crime shows, particularly Law & Order. And Eliot Stabler is constantly disobeying orders and running off on his own to solve crimes, which seems, uh, less than realistic.

  16. Anonymous

    I worked at a company where one of the managers was caught on that nighttime news program, To Catch a Pedophile. What’s more, he was driving the company vehicle to the liaison and called his manager to bail him out of jail.

    The punchline to all of this . . . he was not immediately fired or asked to leave. Instead, it was decided that he would be allowed to continue to work unless he was aired on national television.

    He was and he left with a severance package. Never mind that this company frequently had family events where employee’s children’s were welcome and he was (I simply must reiterate) driving a company vehicle. It took his face being on television before he was required to leave.

    Oh. And he approached this “young girl” using the company laptop. No doubt he also used the company cell phone to call her but that is only a guess on my part.

    1. Anon y. mouse

      AAaack! I’m a tech person – I’ve often wondered about the possibility of finding something like that while fixing a coworker’s computer. *shudder*

      Fortunately I’ve never found anything worse than (likely) pirated movies and some really horrid music.

      1. Anonymous

        Well now I am shuddering at the thought that anyone would see what music I have on my computer.

          1. I'm not admiting this with my real name

            In my B’s I have Bon Jovi, Billy Joel, Britney, Bowling for Soup and…

            small voice…the Brady Bunch.

            1. Wilton Businessman

              Good call not admitting to Britney and the Bradys…. (everybody’s smiling, sunshine day).

  17. Jennifer

    This is a brilliant idea! I’ve wondered what you’d think about some of the characters/scenarios I’ve read about. I’ll try to track down some of the more outrageous and send you the info.

  18. Anonymous

    I have always thought, that although Bridget Jones’ boss was a bit of a jerk, she was the employee from hell as well. They deserved each other!

  19. Mike

    I believe that you can’t fire someone who is an alcoholic in Wisconsin because it is a disease because alcoholic is considered a disease which is a protected class. Good example: Mayor of Sheboygan, WI got caught twice with disorderly behavior with intoxication. The common council wants to get rid of him, but the mayor threatened to sue if they did because alcoholism is a protected class.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I don’t know about the Wisconsin law, but in general with disability laws it’s important to note that you CAN fire someone with the disability. The rule is that you have to supply “reasonable accommodation” that doesn’t cause the business “undue hardship.” But if the person isn’t performing “the essential functions of the position,” with that accommodation, then they can be fired.

      With the mayor, he might sue, but that doesn’t mean he’d win. I suspect a court would rule that professional, decorous, sober behavior is in fact an essential part of the role of a county executive.

      1. Wilton Businessman

        “With the mayor, he might sue, but that doesn’t mean he’d win. I suspect a court would rule that professional, decorous, sober behavior is in fact an essential part of the role of a county executive.”

        With the way some of our local legislators have been cranking out the silly laws lately, one could argue the point that they need to be sober.

      2. fposte

        And mayor is an elected office in Sheboygan, as in most places. I don’t think that even counts as a job under labor law (though I’m not sure about that); certainly, such positions generally aren’t constituted as fireable–that’s why you actually had to have the Illinois Senate vote to remove Blagojevich from office rather than just having him sent home with his stuff in a box one day.

    2. class factotum

      Don’t forget the part about how he was caught on video talking about how he’d like to do his wife’s sister. And didn’t he grope some woman during his most recent binge at the Brown Bear in Elkhart?

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