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Monday, September 15, 2008

A lesson in drafting clear handbook policies

Quality Mold had a handbook policy under which an employee would forfeit unused vacation upon a termination for "gross misconduct." The handbook, however, did not ascribe a definition to "gross misconduct." Quality Mold administered drug tests to its supervisors after receiving a tip from an employee's mother that one supervisor was furnishing drugs to her son. John Lang tested positive for cocaine and marijuana. Quality Mold terminated him and refused to pay him for his unused vacation time, determining that a failed drug test constitutes gross misconduct. In Lang v. Quality Mold (Summit Cty. 9/10/08), the Court of Appeals disagreed:

Quality Mold has argued that "gross" means "[g]laringly, obvious, [or] flagrant." As the magistrate noted, there was no evidence that Mr. Lang distributed illegal drugs to other employees. There was also no evidence that Mr. Lang's drug use had impaired his performance, that he had endangered other workers, that he had any absenteeism or disciplinary problems, or that he had caused harm to Quality Mold's other employees or property. Under these circumstances, this Court concludes that the trial court's finding that Mr. Lang had not committed gross misconduct was supported by the record.

On first blush, this opinion seems to defy common sense. As the concurring opinion points out, "employers and managers of companies unquestionably have an interest in preventing drug use by their employees, as it affects not only the quality of their production but also the safety of their staff and potential consumers." However, as the concurring opinion also points out, "employers also enjoy the prerogative to clearly set forth terms that define the manner in which vacation can be used or retained and the consequences for violation of company policies."

Let this case serve as a cautionary tale -- don't leave policies open to interpretation by a court. If you want drug use, or some other reason, to disqualify an employee from receiving a vacation payout on termination, say so. Don't trust that judges will see things your way when you have to argue an ambiguity after the fact.

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