Courts often hesitate to second-guess employers when they fire employees for what seem like honest reasons. And employers that set out clear performance expectations and then show how the terminated employee fell short rarely lose a lawsuit.
That’s because, absent smoking-gun evidence of discrimination—on the order of “You’re fired because you are too old and slow for the job”—fired employees have to prove they were meeting their employer’s legitimate expectations.
Recent case: Mary O’Grady was hired as an electric-meter reader and underwent several weeks of training before she was sent into the field. The electric company had very specific requirements for how many meters had to be read, and O’Grady consistently read fewer meters than others who started at the same time. She was fired for failing to meet productivity targets.
O’Grady sued, alleging age and sex discrimination.
She had no direct evidence of discrimination, so she had to show she was meeting legitimate expectations. But she couldn’t because the expectations were clear and everyone else met them while she did not. The case was dismissed. (O’Grady v. Commonwealth Edison Company, No. 09-C-2539, ND IL, 2010)
Final note: The more objective your expectations, the better chance you will have in winning a lawsuit. For example, dollar or production goals are easy to understand. However, subjective expectations like “build good customer relationships” are not. Stick with easily quantifiable goals and document how and by how much the employee fell short.