Have you ever been in an unemployment hearing? If so, did you enjoy it? You can be honest, we are all friends. Of course, if you did enjoy it, you have something seriously wrong with you. In HR land, Unemployment Hearings are usually equated to the Seventh Circle of Hell. In fact, if I were Stephen King or Dean Koontz or Joe Hill, I would write a horror novel where some super evil monster snatches up children and they sit on unemployment hearings all day.
Now, this isn’t to say that if you have always longed for a career as a hearing officer I am discouraging you, because that is not the case. But for those of you who have ever sat in on an unemployment hearing, how happy does the hearing officer actually sound? Be honest. In fact, most of the time you get the same amount of enthusiasm from someone saying “please hold while I watch the paint dry,” as when the hearing officer says “please hold while I check the quality of the tape.” Now, if you are a hearing officer, and you bounce out of bed every morning excited to go to work, I think that is great! Drop me a line: firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me your secret. If your secret involves something that isn’t legal, maybe keep that to yourself. You never know who may be reading my mail (that’s right Big Brother – I am on to you!)
So, back to unemployment hearings, or unemployment in general. If you are an employer and are reading this, you may operate under the mindset that there is nothing worse than paying out unemployment, especially for those really bad hires, who in your mind, at least, don’t deserve it. I hear you because I am in the same boat. I believe that unemployment has a place, sure, but I also believe that as an HR Professional, our job is to mitigate expense and risk and ensure that unemployment is not paid out unless the person is truly deserving – meaning that they involuntarily left through no fault of their own. In other words, they didn’t get fired because they were being stupid, incompetent, or both. If you are told repeatedly that your work isn’t of the caliber that the company is looking for – that is OK, but maybe it is time to start looking. If you dig your heels in, tell yourself it is them and not you, and then find yourself with your always smiling HR person holding a recently emptied printer paper box, I just don’t think unemployment is in order. But I’m not here to argue the merits of unemployment. I’m here to talk about techniques that can better your odds in successfully defending yourself from them. So, let’s begin.
Jim’s first rule of succeeding in an unemployment hearing is this: Shut Up. Seriously, if you follow this one rule, your success in defending yourself in an unemployment hearing will more than double. We all forget that the person who is taking the testimony, either on the phone or in some states, in person, is likely an overworked, underpaid government bureaucrat who has a full docket and a lot of people to hear from. He or she just wants to get the facts together and make a determination so they can move on to the next file in their docket. Keep talking and they just get annoyed, and that isn’t going to help your case. The only thing worse than an overworked, underpaid government bureaucrat is an annoyed, overworked, underpaid government bureaucrat.
Shutting up has an additional benefit as well. As I alluded to earlier, unemployment hearings are recorded. As in with digital recorder. The transcript is readily available and should this little firing go a little further than originally thought, some slight slip of the tongue may end up coming out later on. As one labor attorney told me once, unemployment hearings are free discovery.
This leads to Jim’s second rule of succeeding in an unemployment hearing: be polite. It is free, and it helps. Even if they ask challenging questions, such as why you terminated this obvious model citizen and didn’t give him a final warning after he set fire to the CEO’s office when he was reminded that the company dress code included pants, take a deep breath and as calmly as possible explain that you interpreted this as gross misconduct, and therefore grounds for termination. It is not going to help your case to call the hearing officer a mindless bumbling idiot. They don’t like that.
Finally, follow their rules as stated. Don’t direct questions to the claimant (the former employee) unless directed to do so. Don’t speak or make commentary until it is your turn. Don’t interrupt, no matter what the former employee says. For all intents and purposes, you are on the phone with the most important person in the world (the hearing officer). You are in their house and you are playing by their rules. I say this because claimants often do not realize this and they flaunt, flaunt I say, the rules set forth by this overworked, underpaid government bureaucrat; and you can only guess what happens next…