Is “fooling around” just cause for discharge?

Maintenance Utility Man Tony Russo, age 40, is a hard, wiry little man who in his younger "glory days" was a ranking welterweight contender.

By Raymond Dreyfack March 1, 1999

Maintenance Utility Man Tony Russo, age 40, is a hard, wiry little man who in his younger “glory days” was a ranking welterweight contender. In recent months, an increasing number of complaints had been coming through to Maintenance Supervisor George McGee. Apparently Russo’s idea of fun wasn’t shared by his coworkers.

One employee complained that for no reason at all, Russo punched him on the arm. “The force of the jab was like a piston rod. I felt it all afternoon.”

Another worker registered a similar gripe. “Tony may think it’s a joke. But there’s nothing funny about pain.”

Other employees agreed.

When McGee spoke to Russo about the complaints, the utility man dismissed it as trivial. “They were friendly jabs,” he insisted. “I was just fooling around. Here, like this.”

As a free sample, McGee received a light jab in the ribs. Light or not, it was very fast and the supervisor felt a jolt of electricity go through him.

Through tight lips he said, “You may think that doesn’t hurt, but let me tell you that it does. You don’t know your own strength.”

Russo seemed to take this as a compliment, but promised to cut it out in response to McGee’s insistence.

A week later, McGee received another complaint. With this, he handed Russo a termination notice.

Russo appeared astounded and threatened to sue.

Question: Was McGee justified in firing Russo?

Benson’s verdict: “The dismissal stands,” Plant Engineer John Benson ruled when the situation was revealed. “When an employee inflicts pain on coworkers and refuses to refrain after being warned, it extends beyond either horseplay or, as Russo puts it, ‘fooling around.’ He seems to have some kind of a psychological hang-up he’s unable to keep under control.”