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ON THE JOB FIRING PEOPLE : He Gives the Heave-Ho : Bill Souza Has Seen It All, From Tears to a Pointed Gun

April 19, 1990|AURORA MACKEY ARMSTRONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bill Souza was fired from three jobs early in his career. But his real training in dismissal came when he began sitting on the other side of the desk.

As a personnel boss for several large corporations, he has fired more than 1,500 employees. In the process, he said, he has encountered just about every response a person can have at hearing the news: shock, tears, anger, a gun pointed at his face and a few lawsuits.

Today, as president of Network Personnel, a Ventura consulting company, Souza passes along his experience to litigation-wary employers looking for a safe way to give people their walking papers.

"I don't expect anyone to walk away from here feeling warm and fuzzy about firing people," Souza recently told a group of 20 Ventura County employers in a three-hour seminar in Oxnard. "But you will have a better idea of how to protect yourself legally."

The volume of court cases suggests that employers have reason to weigh how they give someone the ax. Workers file more than 1,000 wrongful-discharge suits a year in California.

Just last month, Souza told the group as he held up a newspaper article, a Ventura County jury awarded $231,000 to an Oxnard man who had been fired from his job of 23 years for taking $5 worth of copper pipe for his personal use. The jury agreed with the man's lawyers that the firing had been unjust.

But Souza said encouragingly, "It's a myth that you can't fire someone without a reason. The reality is you can fire anyone, any time, for no reason."

Of course, he said, some sackings are easier than others. "I've terminated people because they had a conflict with co-workers and couldn't get along. But that's tough to quantify. How do you quantify that someone is a nerd?"

A woman personnel manager raised her hand. "What if they say they're sick? That happens all the time. You can't fire someone for being sick."

"Yes, you can," Souza shot back. "You can fire someone for having cancer who can't perform the job. I'm not advocating it. But you can say, 'It's impacting on your work performance.' "

Souza said he wasn't trying to create sack-happy terminators. He urged his pupils to consider mitigating circumstances, use progressive disciplinary actions and performance reviews and, when a decision had been reached to discharge an employee, to convey that information in an honest, straightforward manner.

"In most cases, it is less expensive to salvage an employee than terminate him," he said, pausing for a moment. "But it is also much more expensive to keep a failure than to fire him."

He endorsed putting so-called "at-will" language on job applications and company handbooks declaring that the company may fire a worker any time for any reason. However, some attorneys familiar with wrongful-discharge cases say it isn't always that simple.

Employers are always bound by laws against discrimination on the basis of sex, race, age or religion. And saying later that workers won't be fired without having a chance to shape up may cause a court to "take the position that the at-will language was modified by subsequent behavior," said Harris E. Kershnar, a Tustin attorney who has represented more than 100 plaintiffs in wrongful-termination suits.

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