Ashley Shaw

Adam LaRoche, the White Sox, and Creating Employment Agreements

When it comes to business, there are lessons we can learn all around us. Some of the best lessons can be gained from sports, where the team setup is ready for any number of business analogies and lessons. Case in point:

It is almost baseball season again, but not every player from last year will be back.

Now, for a lot of former players this was expected. After a long career, they chose to retire from the sport they loved. Or perhaps they finally reached the conclusion that their sub-par career was never going to take them to the big leagues and they might as well give up. Some may have just reached the point where, while they used to be good, they are no longer performing and were let go.

Some of the stories are inspiring. Some are sad. But they are all just part of the game. In other words, they are the norm.

And then there is Adam LaRoche.

The Story of Adam LaRoche

For any non-baseball fans out there – or for any baseball player that just is not that in the loop on this situation – Adam LaRoche is a professional baseball player.

Correction: Adam LaRoche is a former professional baseball player. However, if you have been on vacation for the past week, this may be a surprise to you.

You see, LaRoche, up until recently, had absolutely no plans to retire quite yet. That all changed, though, when his team, the Chicago White Sox, told him he could no longer bring his son everywhere with him.

This is what happened in a nut shell: LaRoche has a 14-year-old son. For the last few years, this son has been following in his father’s footsteps. In this case, quite literally. The kid went to all the games, hung out in the locker room with the team, travelled with them, and even participated in some drills.

In all honesty, the whole situation was kind of weird because while I can only imagine what goes on in these locker rooms, I doubt it is overly appropriate for kids. Also, these men are doing their jobs, and having “Bring Your Son to Work Day” everyday can get kind of old.

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Apparently, I am not the only person to feel this way. In response to the situation, LaRoche, who has been doing this for about five years now, was asked to tone it down. And then he was asked to just stop it altogether.

He was not pleased, and instead of saying he understood, he said he quit.

He Said, The White Sox Said

As is often the case, there appears to be two sides to this story. So let’s us examine what all the various parties have to say.

So first, we have LaRoche himself. That’s pretty easy because he actually gave us a statement to use.

Here are the key points:

  • He views the fact that teams have always allowed his son to stay with him as “a privilege [he has] greatly valued.”
  • Before he signed with the team, he asked, and was given permission, to make his son a part of the team.
  • The team performed due diligence before agreeing that the kid could be there.
  • There was always an understanding that if any teammate complained, the situation would be addressed.
  • His teammates did not complain.
  • The White Sox went back on their agreement.

The players themselves considered boycotting the game, and pitcher Chris Sale went so far to say that Drake, the kid in question, was a leader and team Vice President Ken Williams was a liar.

Another apparent point for LaRoche?

Not only did the team agree to LaRoche’s terms for allowing Drake to visit, but they actually gave him his own locker and jersey.

Luckily, we not only have LaRoche’s statement, we have the statement of White Sox’s chairman, Jerry Reinsdorf, which gives us the team’s (or at least the executive portion of the team’s) perspective. So here are some more key points:

  • This has all been a big misunderstanding.
  • He agrees with the way Ken Williams handled everything.

Sources also add some additional merits to the team’s side. All of the following has been claimed:

  • Williams did not act alone. While no teammate wanted to come out and complain to LaRoche’s face, they did make complaints. Williams was acting on those player’s behalf and was keeping a confidence by not giving away their names.
  • It had never been expected that LaRoche would bring his son to practically every team event when the agreement was made. (He came to almost every home game and plenty of road trips too, where he travelled on the team charter.)
  • As a compromise, Williams sat down LaRoche and told him to scale back on the time his son was present. However, after the talk, absolutely nothing changed. It was only then that he was told Drake had lost visiting privileges.

Ok. That is a whole lot of information. But what does it have to do with your business? And more importantly, what does it have to do with your legal responsibilities to your employees?

A lot.

Accidently Creating an Employment Contract

So you are probably aware that your state is an employment-at-will state. Well, that is unless you live in Montana. This means if you want to fire an employee, go for it – with some limitations such as for discrimination purposes, of course.

However, if you create an employment agreement with the employee, then you might just lose your right to that at-will employment relationship.

While this might be obvious if you sit down and create an agreement that sets out the terms of employment, it might not be so if you do not necessarily mean to create an agreement.

Just like with all contracts, employment contracts can be verbal. That is why you have to watch what you say when you are hiring new workers.

Let’s say you mean to have an at-will relationship with your newest hire, but you casually mention in a meeting that they have a job with you for as long as they want it just so long as they get you the results they have been getting for their last employer. Now, a while later times are tough and you let the worker go. If a jury finds that it was a verbal agreement and your employee reasonably relied on your implied contract, then, depending on the law of your state, you could find yourself in hot water.

A more common situation arises in employee handbooks. Let’s say your employee handbook states that an employee will only be fired for just cause. Now, if you fire an employee without just cause, they might be able to say you had an agreement that you violated.

As seen in the LaRoche case, the agreement does not always have to be about termination. You could make an agreement about any employment term. Maybe you said something about regular bonuses to get the new hot prospect to sign on. Maybe you told them they could bring their kid in every day despite the fact that you don’t even have a daycare at the workplace. Whatever it is, you don’t want to have workers who think you have an agreement that you didn’t mean to create. It can only cause trouble later on.

In order to avoid this potential legal pitfall, take the following steps:

  • Train anybody interviewing or hiring workers to watch what they say so that they are not saying things that could be construed as a contractual agreement.
  • Review all written communications and employee handbooks in order to ensure they are not implying any unintended promises.
  • State up front any terms of employment such as pay and at-will status. While they on their own may not help you if another, conflicting agreement is found, if it does come down to a he said, she said situation, having a written documentation of your intended agreement can only help.

Honoring Your Employee Agreements

Adam LaRoche feels like his team went back on their employment agreement with him, and many of his teammates agree. The whole situation has been bad for the White Sox because it brought down employee morale (which could have negative outcomes on their production this season), gave the team bad press and a hurt reputation, and caused a valuable member to leave the organization.

However, if it is found that an actual agreement existed – one which the team was legally bound by and which they tried to violate, no matter their rationale – then it could also bring them some legal trouble. (And I’m just talking about from an individual’s point of view. I won’t even go into the whole Union argument here, but I could.)

This is not just a remote possibility, either. The Major League Baseball Players Association is considering bringing a grievance against the team. If that happens, win or lose the case, the entire situation will bring even more unwanted attention to the unfortunate situation.

Similarly, do not make a contract with your employees lightly. Once it is made, you are more than just honor bound to follow it. Reneging on it will hurt your morale, production, and reputation in the same way as it did the White Sox’s, though perhaps not in such a national spotlight.

However, even separate and aside from all of those consequences, a contract, even a verbal contract, is legally binding. You might try to ignore it or change it after the fact, but there is a good chance you won’t be able to get away with it. So make sure that you are complying with all components of your employee agreements.

The Moral of the Story

It remains to be seen what will be the end result of the White Sox situation. Perhaps it will have no effect and the team will band together and end up winning the World Series. Maybe the Players Association will fine the team because they find them in violation of a breach of an employee agreement and the resulting dissatisfaction and mistrust by the rest of the players will cause them to have an awful season of record proportions. Only time will tell.

But what we can say now is that the White Sox have taught all of us a valuable lesson. Employment agreements are serious stuff and should not be taken lightly.

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