I have been an employer for many years now, and over the course of my somewhat varied career I have encountered many strange and unique tales. In fact, it is easy to assume that after 30 plus years of professional management, almost 17 of them in workers' compensation, one might be honestly able to say “I've seen it all”.
But then, one might never have encountered the management philosophy of irrigation professionals on Colorado's Western Slope.
A workers' compensation case out of Montrose, CO, recently revealed that an employee of a water users association played pranks on co-workers over the span of many years. They were minor, boyish little pranks; the kind that real men play on one another all the time in workplaces across this vast continent. I mean, who amongst us hasn't routinely defecated in a co-workers lunchbox, or placed a harmless bomb under the hood of a company vehicle designed to explode when the engine was started? True, the fact that one such device buckled the hood of the vehicle might seem over the top, but really, who are we to judge?
An administrative law judge ruled late last year that the association must pay disability benefits to another employee who was injured on the job and fired last May. The ALJ, who clearly doesn't share the same jovial spirit as the injured workers' brethren, “detailed several instances of crude and dangerous behavior” by an employee that was the subject of multiple complaints by the injured worker and other employees.
What probably stuck in everybody's craw was that the association's General Manager not only failed to address any of the pranks – he promoted the prankster to a supervisory role. To be fair, the prankster, who at one time routinely placed his feces in lunchboxes and defecated on co-workers, and in addition to the car bombs placed jugs of accelerant in high weeds designed to explode when co-workers were clearing brush with torches, was asked by the GM to “stop making bombs” because complaints had been filed.
It is not clear at this time whether pooping on people was also considered “making bombs”.
However, the newly ensconced supervisor admitted in testimony that his pranks continued, but mostly just shooting people with a homemade “potato gun”. Apparently at the hearing this supervisor “was disclosing so much information about the bombs and how they exploded that the judge advised him of his Fifth Amendment rights about self-incrimination.”
The judge found that the injured worker, who had complained about the pranks prior to dismissal, had not been terminated for any just cause and ordered that benefits be paid.
The president of the water users association's board of directors said he believed the judge's order was one-sided, and claimed someone is circulating the order in a “blatant attempt to insult the association, to discredit the association.”
Yeah, ‘cause employing and promoting a bomb making defecating potato shooting psychopath doesn't quite discredit you enough.
My favorite part of the entire story was the description of the General Manager's testimony:
He testified that lack of communication by the injured worker with his abusive boss was a terminable offense, but “hedged” on whether much of the pranksters “behavior constituted a reason for termination”.
He stated that determining whether setting off explosions near employees was a terminable offense depended on the “severity of the explosions.” (I love that one.)
When asked whether putting one's feces in a co-worker's lunch was a terminable offense, he testified that ‘there (are) always pranks, and I have seen that happen before in different places.' He testified that defecating into a co-worker's lunch is not a terminable offense. According to the judge's order, he also testified that defecating towards another employee in the field is not a terminable offense, but could be ‘if it continue(d),'.
I don't believe he established a specific timeframe with which to judge the continuation of said bowel evacuations, nor did he define whether it had to be one continuous event or could be a cumulative calculation of multiple poohings.
I mean, really, what's a guy got to do to get fired around here? Oh yeah, complain about the colossal asshole that is now in charge. That'll git ‘er done.
When contacted by the local paper and asked whether he still thought the feces-related pranks were not terminable offenses, he did not say he had changed his mind. I will tell you, you've got to admire a guy who knows his shit. Or at least that of his subordinate supervisors.
Ultimately, the judge said it most succinctly when she wrote in her order, “Considering the totality of the evidence, the ALJ finds that Claimant did not precipitate the employment termination by a volitional act, which he would reasonably expect to result in the loss of employment. This finding is supported by Employer's failure to warn or discipline Claimant for his conduct between September 2014 and May 4, 2015, and Employer's tolerance of far more egregious behavior from other employees.”
Of course, someone is going to have to explain to those irrigation guys what the hell “egregious” means. One thing is certain. For them it doesn't mean “termination”.