The employment lawsuit that refused to die
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The employment lawsuit that refused to die

What did Northrop Grumman do to Joseph O’Toole that made him so mad?

O’Toole’s been hounding his former employer in the courts for more than a decade, costing the company countless hours, aggravation and attorney fees. And he’s not done yet.

So it must have been over something really terrible, right?

Well, not really. It all started with a relatively minor misunderstanding – the sort of thing that could happen in any organization, any day of the week.

We recount the case in some detail here because it’s full of lessons about managers keeping promises, and keeping little problems from escalating into a legal nightmare.

Stiffed on moving expenses
O’Toole’s grievances began back in 1996, when he claimed the company reneged on a pledge to reimburse his moving expenses from California to New Mexico. In 1999, he sued in federal district court for breach of promise. He lost.

But he appealed, and the federal appeals court ruled in his favor.

The company finally admitted it should have paid some of O’Toole’s moving expenses and settled some of his claims. But other claims went to trial in 2003. O’Toole lost again.

End of story? Not at all. O’Toole appealed again. Again, the appeals court ruled in his favor on some of his claims, enough to send the case back to district court. There, the judge gave O’Toole $33,000 in damages. Not enough, he asserted. He filed a third appeal. By now, it was 2007, more than a decade after the initial disagreement.

The appeals court agreed that $33,000 was too little and sent the case back once again to district court. That court obliged, upping O’Toole’s payday to $50,000.

Still not good enough, O’Toole said. He appealed a fourth time, claiming the court hadn’t calculated his damages correctly.

At the beginning of this year — some 14 years after things got going — the appeals court again ruled in O’Toole’s favor. And so back went the case again to the district court.

That’s where things stand today. After all the years of legal fees, lost admin time and hassle, Northrop Grumman still isn’t done with Joseph O’Toole and his lawsuit.

We can’t speak to the company’s legal strategy. But this case shows just how much damage a broken promise can do. By its own admission, the company didn’t do right by O’Toole. But instead of fixing its mistake, it dug in its heels.

There’s some learning here for HR pros, front-line managers and executives:

    1. Keep your promises

Nothing makes an employee as mad as a broken promise, and an angry employee is a lawsuit waiting to happen. O’Toole provides a perfect example of that. HR can help by reminding managers of the importance of the company’s word. Don’t give it lightly, and do what you promise.

    1. Manage expectations

Sometimes an employee hears a promise when one wasn’t intended. A manager recruiting a star candidate says, “Don’t worry; we’ll take care of you.” Later, she has to say, “Well, that’s not quite what I meant.” Encourage managers to leave no doubt in an employee’s or prospect’s mind about what they should expect.

    1. Keep communication open

Sometimes in the course of business, expectations change. You extolled the 401(k) plan, but this year there’s no match. Business conditions may change, but don’t assume that employees are okay with it just because they don’t complain. Get out in front with a good explanation.

    1. Lower the temperature

And if you’re in a position to influence your company’s response to a claim or lawsuit, try to keep everyone cool, calm and focused on what’s best for the company. Sometimes it’s right to stand up and fight – no matter what the cost. But make sure it’s for the right reasons, not because an exec is feeling angry or defensive.

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