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Employers Need to Walk the Talk

Did your parents ever tell you not to smoke while a cigarette dangled from their lips? Or, tell you not to curse when they had a potty mouth? If so, you know that the “Do as I say and not as I do” philosophy is not an effective parenting technique. A recent administrative hearing demonstrated that it’s not an effective technique for employers or supervisors either.

The administrative hearing occurred after Wellma “Tootie” Shafer was terminated from her job as a cashier at the Last Chance Market in Russell, Iowa. Shafer’s boss, Rick Braaksma, challenged her attempt to obtain unemployment benefits and both presented their cases before an administrative law judge.

According to numerous news sources, Braaksma argued that Shafer was terminated for misconduct because of an inappropriate discussion she had with a customer. “They were standing at the cash register talking about dirty, adult situations. I told (Shafer) we do not run our store like that. We cannot stand there and talk about adult situations in front of other customers,” he was quoted as saying in the article “Judge: Talking dirty not reason enough to lose job” on

Shafer said no such conversation took place, but even if it did, profanity and off-color humor were part of the scene at the market. For example, the labels of some products sold at the store included profanity and depictions of female body parts (like “Wake The F Up” coffee and “The Hottest F—in’ Sauce” hot sauce).

In response to Braaksma’s argument that he didn’t tolerate dirty jokes in his store, the administrative judge asked, “So why don’t you remove these articles from your shelves?”

Braaksma: “Because we sell them.”

Judge: “They are dirty jokes on your shelves, basically.”

Braaksma: “No, they’re bottles of hot sauce. It’s all right to have dirty words on the premises because the farmers come in there and eat lunch all the time and that’s just, uh, kind of…”

Judge: “So dirty words are OK.”

Braaksma: “Yeah, but there’s a time and a place for it.”

So, Braaksma fired Shafter for talking dirty, but he allowed products with dirty words on them in his store. In other words, do as I say and not as I do.

The judge gave Shafer her unemployment benefits, noting that she had not been warned about her performance before being terminated. While at-will employers are not required to provide warnings, this case (among many others) demonstrates that it’s a good idea to do so.

It also demonstrates that employers and supervisors with the “Do as I say and not as I do” philosophy will have a very difficult time defending themselves for terminating employees who are simply emulating their behavior. Additionally, and probably more importantly, they will have a very difficult time getting employees to respect them and perform well.

One of the most basic principles of leadership is to lead by example. Employees are a lot like children in that they watch people in positions of authority and take their cue from them.

So, employers and supervisors who want their employees to act professionally should set the example by acting professionally themselves. Those who want their employees to work safely should always work safely. Those who want their employees to show up on time, cut costs, work efficiently, etc. should do all of those things themselves.

Employers and supervisors must walk the talk if they want their employees to do what they tell them to do. Because the “Do as I say and not as I do” philosophy doesn’t get it done.

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Disclaimer: The information and resources provided herein are not a substitute for experienced legal counsel and does not constitute legal advice or attempt to address the numerous factual issues that inevitably arise in any employment-related dispute. Although this information attempts to cover some major recent developments, it is not all-inclusive, and any recommendations are based upon HR best practices and procedures. We recommend you consult an attorney for legal guidance.

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