Can an Employee Be Fired for a Belligerent Tirade?

Can an employee be fired for a belligerent tirade? Not necessarily, an employer should use caution when dealing with employee tirades. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently addressed an employee’s right to discuss working conditions with his employer. The case involved a working condition discussion which degenerated when the employee shared a few obscenity laced opinions about the lack of popularity of his boss around the office. The discussion concluded with the employee pushing a chair aside and leaving his employer with one final thought; if he was fired the employer would regret it. The employee was fired and litigation proceeded.

The issue in the case was whether the employee was wrongfully retaliated against for expressing his thoughts on his working conditions or whether the employer was justified in terminating the employee in order to maintain order in the workplace. The Ninth Circuit considered the fact that the outburst occurred in a private office away from other employees; that the subject matter of the conversation related to legally protected working condition and compensation policies; and based on the appellate record, considered whether or not the outburst was obscene and offensive.

The court noted that obscene and offensive outbursts are generally not protected, but decided the case by sending it back to the Administrative Law Judge for clarification of the factual findings of whether or not the employees conduct was “belligerent.”

Lesson for Employees: Be polite when discussing the terms and conditions of your employment with your employer. The law protects an employee from retaliation when an employee raises the issue of their working conditions.

Lesson for Employers: Use caution when responding to employee outbursts or belligerent employee behavior. This is especially true when the behavior relates to or is associated with a discussion of the employees working conditions or compensation. Do not retaliate against an employee who raises issues with their working conditions or compensation. This is true even when an employee could be a bit more polite when discussing the topic. Any adverse employment action taken in response to an employee bringing up issues with their wages and or working conditions may be deemed illegal retaliation.

In summary, employers should avoid taking any kind of adverse employment action against an employee who has raised issues with the terms and conditions of her employment. Take caution to make sure there can be no argument that the adverse employment action was in retaliation for the employee’s legal right to discuss certain aspects of his employment, including working conditions, wages, overtime, or meal and rest breaks. Or whether or not co-workers like the boss or not.

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