For Want of a Nail...

by Richard Shank | May 2009

The following story is a composite of several situations. Names, locations, and other facts have been changed to illustrate and simplify the case.
Jane couldn’t believe it. Her attorney had just phoned and advised her to reinstate Matilda to her former position, including back wages. Jane had never heard of such an absurd thing. It had all seemed so simple. Matilda had been an employee for three years, but during the last year her value to Jane had drastically diminished.
Matilda was late for work almost every day. Her productivity had decreased to less than half that of the other women in her department, so Jane had fired her. Now, Matilda’s attorney threatened her with a $1,000,000 lawsuit if she didn’t rehire Matilda—and Jane’s attorney told her Matilda would probably win if the matter went to court. Jane was shocked, and wondered what had happened to an employer’s right to fire an employee.
The situation seemed almost as crazy as the story Noah had told her. Noah was a strong believer in modesty on the job. When one of his employees came to work wearing immodest clothing, Noah warned Keith not to do it again. The next day, guess what? Same clothing. So, Noah fired him. It had cost Noah $25,000 to get that issue settled when the employee hired an attorney!
As Jane’s advisor, I had a dilemma. How could I kindly tell Jane that both she and Noah could have easily avoided these employee problems? The phrase ‘for want of a nail...’ in these cases meant the omission of an employee handbook. Both Jane and Noah had learned expensive lessons.
Noah’s problem seemed to him to be an infringement on his rights. You see, Noah belonged to a conservative church. His church group enforced the rule that all members wear plain blue shirts at work, with the sleeves buttoned at the wrist, and the neck button closed. His employees knew how Noah dressed, and out of respect to Noah, they dressed in a similar manner on the job. But Keith wasn’t a church member, and said he was never told he must dress a certain way as a condition of his employment. Plus he said some of the men rolled up their shirt sleeves, and left their shirt collars unbuttoned, and Noah never reprimanded them. But when Keith came to work wearing a Budweiser tee shirt, Noah erupted. The attorney said Noah forfeited his right to control the shirt situation by not having a written policy and by not requiring all employees to follow it.
Jane’s problem also seemed to begin innocently enough. She had been attempting to hire an experienced sewing machine operator for a long time, when a friend told her about Matilda. Jane was overjoyed when Matilda agreed to work for her. Jane placed her arm on Matilda’s shoulder and said, “Matilda my friend, you’ll have a job here until you retire.” But Matilda’s attorney said that statement was tantamount to a lifetime employment contract. Jane was lucky to settle the situation at an expense of only $75,000 plus paying the fees of both attorneys.
I slowly pulled an Employee Handbook out of my attaché case and showed it to Jane. It only contained a few dozen pages, but it covered the situations Jane and Noah experienced, as well as many others; smoking, male/female employee relationships, using cell phones on the job, safety issues, and hundreds more. Both were surprised to learn how easy it would be to prevent many potential problems if they had a company employee handbook. “But,” Jane objected, “my company can’t afford to pay someone $10,000 to write one for me.” However, when she learned that for less than $100 she could easily customize one for her business, she sobbed, “Why didn’t anyone tell me the dangers I faced, and why didn’t anyone tell me about the help which was available from AF for plain people?” Ω

"For Want of a Nail" from the May 2009 issue of Stewardship Connections, a publication of Anabaptist Financial. Reprinted with Permission.