THINK Before You Fire – What Claire Underwood Did Wrong

April 16, 2013

Although I don’t spend much time watching TV, I came across the new Netflix series House of Cards in which all 13 episodes were released at once for back to back watching. I enjoyed the series for its political perspective, but found it interesting as an employment lawyer as well.

Claire Underwood played by Robin Wright is the cold and beautiful wife of Francis Underwood, House Majority Whip (Kevin Spacey). Claire is the director of the non-profit Clean Water Initiative (CWI). In the beginning of the season, she fires half her staff, assigning the actual serial ax job to the office manager, who is terminated by Claire immediately after the firings are completed. She then actively recruits Gillian Cole (Sandrine Holt). When Claire first interviews Gillian, she is ill and, even before she is hired, Claire sends her to her personal physician, all expenses paid, a novel recruiting tool. Once she is on the job for a few months, Gillian tells Claire that she is pregnant as an explanation of why she cannot fly on CWI business. Gillian begins missing work periodically, and childless Claire makes a remark questioning her priorities and commitment to CWI. Ultimately, Gillian defies Claire on a matter of principal and Claire fires her on the spot for her insubordination. When Claire is later visited by counsel, we find out that not only has Gillian sued CWI but that she will not accept any monetary amount to settle her claim. Gillian tells Claire that the publicity resulting from her suit will cost CWI, Claire and her high profile politician husband more than any settlement payment and insure a better world for her unborn child. She also has many witnesses happy to testify for her including the former office manager, and adds that any embellishment of her testimony is justified by the need to expose CWI as a sell-out to corporate interests.  

The biggest mistake Claire made was impulsively firing pregnant Gillian as an angry reaction to her defiance. There was no plan, no forethought, no documentation of problematic work performance and no consultation with counsel or her Board. Claire acted out of personal anger and did not consider CWI’s best interests or the risks associated with such action.

The impersonal and cruel way the former employees were terminated was another mistake. How you fire can be more important than the actual act of termination. This is particularly so in the case of a non-profit which is at least perceived to be more charitable and humane than the for profit business world.

Finally, not such a good idea to get personally involved with a prospective employee’s health care. The more you know, the more an improper motive can be assigned to you.

We’ll have to wait until the release of Season 2 to find how this works itself out.

Christina Hausner is an attorney at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP in Lancaster, PA. She received her law degree from Duquesne University School of Law and has practiced in the area of employment law for over 25 years.