5 Wrongly Fired People Who Fought Back and Won
Word on the street is a recession is brewing, and everyone’s going to get laid off, starting with you. Once your family asks why you got fired, remember to tell them that being laid off is not the same as being fired.
When you’re laid off, your position was eliminated. It wasn’t you fault, and now, there’s nothing you can do about it. When you’re fired, your boss got rid of you because you personally were a mess. It was your fault, your boss says. But if it wasn’t your fault after all, maybe you can contest your firing. Consider, for example, the inspiring tales of...
The Lunchtime Porn Viewer
This is the story of a man known only as Giuseppe Z. His full identity remains undisclosed, though he has nothing to be ashamed of. In 2008, Giuseppe was working at his job manufacturing Fiat cars at a factory in the town of Termini Imerese in Sicily. During his lunch break, he headed to the electricity supply room, pulled open his laptop and put on some porn. Matters weren’t helped when his supervisors found even more porn in his locker, and the factory ultimately decided to fire him.
To understand why Giuseppe is remembered as such a legend, I have to tell you one more fact about his special lunch: Giuseppe did not go online for a bit and then idly find himself opening some porn site. He instead inserted a DVD into his laptop’s disc tray, a DVD of a full-length hardcore film. He had brought this film to work, on physical media. Either this was a personal favorite that he wanted to rewatch, or he had been saving it for a special occasion (lunch).
Giuseppe contested his firing, and a court supported Fiat’s decision. But appeals kept flying back and forth, until the case reached Italy’s Supreme Court in 2014. The world had changed in many ways, and porn DVDs had become quaint, but the high court now got to rule, and they sided with Giuseppe. The man had been on his break, they noted. His diversion hadn’t disrupted his work in any way, and that all meant he should not have been fired. Workers have the right to watch porn on their off-time, the court ruled. The factory just needs to put up a sign, reading, “Employees must wash hands before returning to work.”
The Overly Generous McDonald’s Employee
Speaking of guilty-pleasure meals, our next case comes out of McDonald’s — a McDonald’s in the Netherlands. A Dutch McDonald’s functions similarly to an American McDonald’s, except that in America, they call it a “quarter pounder,” while in the Dutch town of Lemmer, they call it... also a quarter pounder, actually. In 2009, a customer at this restaurant ordered not a quarter pounder but a simple hamburger. Then he returned to the counter and asked for a slice of cheese. An employee gave him one. So, the restaurant fired her.
Cheese isn’t some free food employees can just hand out to anyone who asks. If the customer wanted cheese, they should have ordered a cheeseburger, and paid the premium over the cost of a hamburger (about 25 cents). If word gets around that McDonald’s is handing out free toppings, chaos would ensue. Next thing you know, passersby will be walking in asking for free ketchup packets and hot water, and soon, seven evenings a week will be Free Tomato Soup Night.
A court got a chance to weigh in on this incident, and they said, sure, McDonald’s can enforce whatever paid slice system they want. But that doesn’t mean they get to fire a worker after an infraction like this. They could have just given her a warning. “The dismissal was too severe a measure,” read the decision. “It is just a slice of cheese.” They ruled that McDonald’s owed the employee five months’ pay, a figure that I’ll avoid listing here, because it’s so small that this otherwise triumphant ending would now just depress you.
The Blind Barber
In 2015, Joel “The Blind Barber” Nixon won a settlement from Tony’s Barber Shop, after arguing that his blindness was not a good reason to fire him. You can take a second to marvel at the image of someone with dark glasses standing behind a barber chair — scissors in one hand, straight razor in the other, surrounded by customers bleeding out — as Tony in the background is powerless to intervene. Then let me tell you what was really going on here.
Nixon was legally blind, a term that refers to someone with a narrow cone of vision or severe nearsightedness. If someone can read the top “E” in an eye chart but nothing else, they are legally blind. Should someone legally blind be barred from cutting hair? No, argued Nixon, and a court agreed with him.
It seemed that boss Tony Morales cut him loose based on one additional factor: the knowledge that Nixon’s vision could worsen. Thanks to his retinitis pigmentosa, Nixon could wake up totally blind one day and was therefore a high-risk employee. But you’re not allowed to fire someone using that reasoning. Massachusetts has a Commission Against Discrimination to make sure of that. The final day for Nixon was a bit of a slapstick tragedy. He tripped over two different customers. Still, it didn’t justify the firing, ruled the commission.
If you listen to Morales’ side of the story, the firing also took into account that Nixon's barber license had expired. But then, who cares whether experienced barbers currently have a license? The commission sure didn't, so it's safe to say that Nixon is a name you can trust.
The Employee Who TYPED IN ALL CAPS
Twenty-five years ago, I read a newspaper quiz titled “How wired are you?” The very fact that this quiz was printed on paper should clue you in on how different a world this was technologically, but some things have remained the same. One of the questions was: “A new coworker has typed a message to you entirely in capital letters. What do you conclude?” I picked answer c), which was “The person is shouting.” The correct answer was d): “The person is unfamiliar with the specifics of email etiquette.”
Jump ahead a decade, and we get the story of New Zealand accountant Vicki Walker, who habitually wrote out sentences in all-caps in emails. “TO ENSURE YOUR STAFF CLAIM IS PROCESSED AND PAID, PLEASE DO FOLLOW THE BELOW CHECK LIST,” she’d type. Everyone finally got tired of these “shouty” provocations, and in 2009, her company fired her.
But she wasn’t really shouting. She was just highlighting some important sentences in the only way a plaintext email let her. A tribunal ruled on the firing and found that the company had terminated her unfairly. She hadn’t violated any rules. The company didn’t even have an official email style guide. Presumably, after paying Walker the mandated settlement, the company did issue an official email style guide, so in one sense, everyone in this story came away a loser.
Jeffrey Katzenberg, From Disney
Some of you know Katzenberg as the founder of DreamWorks Animation. Some of you would say you know him best as a founder of Quibi, because you are liars. But Katzenberg’s most remarkable work remains what he did in the 1980s and 1990s during his time as chairman of Walt Disney Studios. Before Katzenberg, Disney’s moviemaking division was sputtering and ripe for a takeover. Under Katzenberg, the movies became successful, and the animated movies became super successful.
Then, in 1994, Michael Eisner kicked Katzenberg out. The firing began, as so many stories do, with a fatal helicopter crash. Disney President Frank Wells died, and Katzenberg had long thought he’d be next in line for the job. Eisner didn’t want to move him up, so he moved him out. Katzenberg then took Disney to court, a court that had the unenviable job of figuring out exactly what the differences are between “Disney CEO,” “Disney president” and “Walt Disney Studios chairman.”
Officially, the amount Disney ended up having to pay Katzenberg in the ensuing settlement hasn’t been disclosed. But The Hollywood Reporter and Variety quote the figure as $270 million. Disney probably could have got away with paying a third of that instead if they’d negotiated a normal severance agreement with the guy. A less bitter Katzenberg would also have spared Eisner from being mocked in Shrek via the Eisner parody Lord Farquaad. With a less bitter Katzenberg, though, we might not have got Shrek at all. And then where would we all be?