Detroit employment attorney looks at key issues in firing of University of Michigan president

January 18, 2022
Detroit, Michigan

“When you lead a…university, especially one struggling to show its stakeholders…it is a safe and respectful place to work and study— you will and should be held to a high standard.” 

Deborah Brouwer, co-managing partner of Detroit-based labor and employment law firm Nemeth Law, P.C., and a two-time alum from the University of Michigan, offered insights into the key legal issues surrounding the firing of University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel by the University’s board of regents.

  • Firing based on morals clauses

“High level executives and public figures often have morals clauses in their employment agreements, allowing the employer to fire the executive for cause, which usually means the company does not have to pay the rest of the compensation in the contract,” Brouwer explained. “Such clauses can range from a list of specific types of infractions, but more often are general, giving the company power to terminate for any conduct placing the organization in a bad light.”

  • Relationships deemed inappropriate (including dating a direct subordinate)

“Non fraternization policies typically forbid managers from having romantic or sexual relationships (even if consensual) with subordinates. Such relationships can be inherently coercive because of the power differential, and impact on morale at the company, where others can perceive favoritism,” Brouwer said. “And what happens when the relationship ends? Nothing good. At a minimum, such policies require disclosure, but if you’re at the top, disclosure does not address the potential problems.”

  • Use of work emails to either begin or continue relationships that violate company policy

“Using work emails to engage in conduct that violates a company’s policies is just dumb, but it happens over and over,” Brouwer noted. “It adds another violation to a bad situation and, of course, makes it easier to get caught.” 

  • How investigations in situations like this are typically conducted

“When a company receives a report involving a high-level manager - even if anonymous as apparently occurred in the situation with the University of Michigan president - it is fairly standard to retain an outside investigator or law firm to handle the investigation. An independent investigation protects the company (and all parties involved) from accusations of bias. The outside entity usually interviews persons with information, obtains and reviews documents and presents its findings to the company. It’s then up to the company to decide how to respond.”

Brouwer continued that those in a position of authority in the workplace are bound by the same rules they ask others to follow.  

“No matter how high your position, you simply cannot have one set of rules for everyone else and another for yourself - even if you think your conduct might not be the same as others,” Brouwer said. “When you lead a company or a state or a university, especially one struggling to show its stakeholders (and the world) that it is a safe and respectful place to work and study — you will and should be held to a high standard.” 

About Nemeth Law, P.C.

Nemeth Law specializes in employment litigation, traditional labor law, management consultation, arbitration, mediation, and workplace investigation for private and public sector employers. It is the largest woman-owned law firm in Michigan to exclusively represent management in the prevention, resolution and litigation of labor and employment disputes.