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Do your best to promote workplace civility, but don’t sweat faux pas that weren’t meant to offend

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Performance Reviews

Good employers strive to create a workplace that’s as respectful and civil as possible. Achieving that goal requires banning sexist, racist and ageist attitudes and talk. That not only improves overall morale, it also reduces the risk of lawsuits.

But even in organizations that try their best, supervisors and managers sometimes mess up. A poor choice of words or an ill-timed joke can create tension and inflame passions.

Mistakes like those don’t necessarily mean the employer is destined to lose if an employee sues. Judges understand that an isolated incident isn’t grounds for a lawsuit—as long as it isn’t obviously over-the-top.

Recent case: Mark Greco was 49 years old when he was hired by T-Mobile as a senior business analyst. He was 51 when he was fired for alleged poor performance. T-Mobile based the termination on an incident in which Greco lost his temper and got into a screaming match with a co-worker. That incident was just one of an escalating number of complaints from others in the workplace.

Greco sued, alleging age discrimination.

To support his lawsuit, he pointed to an incident in which his supervisor, who himself was old enough to be covered by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), made a joke during an audiovisual presentation. He suggested enlarging the font so those older than 40 could see the screen. The joke fell flat.

However, T-Mobile offered plenty of evidence that it was Greco who created an unpleasant environment. Over the three years he worked for the company, his performance reviews painted the picture of an employee who had trouble communicating in a civil manner with his co-workers, subordinates and customers.

He was described as hotheaded and argumentative. Of course, he denied the characterizations.

The court reviewed each performance evaluation, including the comments Greco had made on them. It concluded that there was plenty of evidence that Greco’s communications skills were the reason he got poor reviews and was eventually fired.

Plus, the court wrote, “it would be unfortunate if courts forced the adoption of an employment culture that required everyone in the structure to be careful so that every remark made every day passes the equivalent of being politically correct lest it be used later against the employer in litigation.”

In other words, the joke about failing eyesight among older workers wasn’t enough to warrant an age discrimination lawsuit—especially when it appeared that Greco himself wasn’t exactly the sensitive type. (Greco v. T-Mobile, No. 09-967, DC NJ, 2010)

Final note: T-Mobile did everything right in this case. It conducted regular reviews, with specific feedback and detailed performance improvement measures. It allowed Greco to comment on the review and contest the evaluation, which demonstrated his resistance to coaching.

And it took action when it became clear Greco’s behavior was not going to improve enough to meet T-Mobile’s legitimate expectations.

Plus, the company argued successfully that it didn’t make any sense for it to hire someone almost 50, only to fire him when he was a few years older.

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