Dear Advice Guy,
While my chef was on vacation, a cook told me that she suspects [the chef is] stealing because things are missing from the walk-in and dry storage that were there the day before. Sure enough I looked at the building’s cameras and saw him wheeling out a cart of food on Sunday when we’re closed. I filed a report with the police and informed the chef he was terminated due to theft and should not return to work after his vacation. He responded that he did not have a chance to defend himself, that I have no proof (I didn’t tell him about the camera footage), that he’s being set up by his sous chef who wants his job, that I’m not following the policy in the employee handbook, and that he will sue me for wrongful termination and win. Is there any validity to that?
– Restaurant Owner, PA
In this situation it sounds like you did everything right: an employee came to you with a concern, you listened, you investigated, you reacted appropriately. Theft (especially theft on that scale—we’re not talking about taking home some leftovers for dinner) should be cause for immediate termination. Even if your employee manual outlines a process for internal investigations, there should be a statement that the manual is subject to change, that yours is an at-will state, and that illegal activity or other clear policy violations could result in immediate termination. If it isn’t clear, when the dust settles from this, you should have your counsel look at your manual.
In at-will states like yours, unless your employee is under a special contract, under a collective bargaining agreement, or there are other circumstances I don’t know about, you should be able to terminate for any reason, provided it is not an illegal reason (such as discriminating on the basis of gender, disability, race, religion, or other protected classes). Thieves are definitely not a protected class.
As always, consult with your attorney to be sure that you’re not missing a nuance that could get you in trouble later, but it seems to me like this is sour grapes from an employee who got caught doing a bad thing and doesn’t want to own it.
More on handling situations like these here.