On April 25, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals decided a “why now?” case with facts that are all too common for employers who are too lenient with problem employees. The cause for the leniency – fear of litigation, good intentions, inattention – is irrelevant. The fact that an employee is permitted to continue to underperform or engage in unacceptable conduct can cause real and expensive problems, not only while employed but also after the employer finally is driven to the brink and terminates the employment altogether.
The Plaintiff in this case was an African-American who was employed in 1999. Between the date of hire and mid 2007 when he was discharged, he had accumulated a record of twenty-three disciplines, five of which were for sexual harassment. In December of 2006, the Plaintiff, with two co-workers, complained that there were too few African-Americans in management. Within two months thereafter, the Plaintiff was disciplined twice more, one for unprofessional conduct in response to a supervisor’s instruction and the other, a final warning, for disrespect to a supervisor. In addition, a co-worker requested to move away from the Plaintiff because of his constant criticism of female supervisors.
After the final warning, a human resource manager examined the Plaintiff’s entire work record and recommended that he be fired, both because the discipline was not having a corrective effect and because he would be a negative comparator in the event of a need to discharge another employee for conduct similar to that he had exhibited. The recommendation was followed and the Plaintiff was discharged.
The Plaintiff’s allegation was that he was discharged in retaliation for his complaint about the lack of African-Americans in management. His proof was that he had been disciplined often, including several final warnings, before his complaint and his conduct apparently had been tolerated by his employer because he was only disciplined. After the complaint, however, the same kind of conduct resulted in his discharge. The “Why Now” question, in his mind, was answered by the fact that he had lodged a race discrimination complaint. In support, the Plaintiff cited a prior case in which the same court had found that the use of criticisms of recent performance as a basis for a discharge was suspect, requiring trial, because similar performance in the past resulted only in minor critiques.
The District Court didn’t buy the Plaintiff’s argument and granted Summary Judgment. The Court of Appeals affirmed, distinguishing the case cited by the Plaintiff as having involved perceptions and judgments while many of the Plaintiff’s disciplines were due to objective behavior and complaints from other employees.
The employer in this case won, so to speak. It still had the litigation costs associated with both the district court and court of appeals proceedings. Also, a few different facts (e.g., the prior disciplines being opinion based) or a different court and the employer would have had the expense of a full-blown trial, in not liability predicated on the employer’s prior leniency.
I draw your attention to this case not because it established some great or new legal principle. Rather, this case demonstrates the danger of what I see time and time again in my practice -- excessive leniency and misplaced problem avoidance – two conditions that cause employers unnecessary angst and expense.
There is a danger to discharging employees without due process, usually defined in terms of progressive discipline. There is also danger in giving an employee too many breaks or delaying discharge decisions endlessly out of a fear of being sued. Employees who are unsatisfactory must be told and helped to correct their problems. However, when the employee demonstrates an inability or unwillingness to improve, the employment should be terminated. Keeping an employee on too long risks keeping in the workplace someone who not only is or may become a mischief-maker, but also may become a negative comparator in other discharge situations. Finally, keeping nonperformers or bad actors in the workplace will depress good workers and promote an environment of mediocrity, something no employer should desire.
One final note about mischief-makers. Mischief-making is in the eye of the beholder and much of what some employers would see as mischief is actually protected by a law. The National Labor Relations Board recently decided a case (Perexel) in which it found that an employer who preemptively discharged an employee out of fear that the employee would engage in union activity violated the National Labor Relations Act. The violation, the Board majority held, was that the discharge was in retaliation for a possible exercise of protected rights. Although the case is outrageous, it cannot be ignored. The Perexel principle has to be factored into any future analysis regarding employee discipline/discharge. Extending the principle a tad, it’s possible to imagine a court adopting a similar theory of retaliation in the civil rights, safety, wage and any other area of the law which protects employees who exercise the rights granted by that law.