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Is ‘Incompatible Working Styles’ A New Legal Defense?

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in Case In Point,Discrimination and Harassment,Firing,Hiring,HR Management,Human Resources

In Hollywood, couples break up every few seconds because of incompatibility. But is “incompatible work styles” a good enough reason to divorce yourself from an employee? This week, one court said it is. However, be aware they will look at your reasoning with caution ...


Case in Point: After being chosen as the CEO of an auto association, David McCurdy, a former congressman, had the option to hire his own assistant or to retain the person currently in the job, Karen Vatel. He chose to keep Vatel based on a positive interview with her.

But McCurdy soon became frustrated with Vatel’s job performance. He got HR involved. The HR manager met with Vatel regularly to review McCurdy’s performance expectations. After trying to make it work for 10 months, McCurdy decided to fire Vatel, claiming “incompatible work styles.”

Vatel, an African American, brought a race and gender discrimination lawsuit against the association, claiming McCurdy’s reason for firing her was a pretextual excuse for discrimination.

The association cited the incompatibility factor, saying McCurdy needed a “strategic” and “proactive” assistant and that she was neither. McCurdy claimed Vatel was “rigid and unable to address problems before they affected him.”

Result: The appeals court last week dismissed her discrimination claim, saying that, “a dysfunctional working relationship is a legitimate ground for dismissal of an assistant.”

The court also said the fact that McCurdy hired her less than a year before her termination presented a “significant hurdle” to her argument that her firing was motivated by discrimination.

“If McCurdy did not want to work with Vatel because of her race or gender, it would be odd to select her and then immediately start ginning up reasons to dismiss her,” said the court decision. It noted that this “same actor” theory “makes it difficult to impute to that person an invidious motivation,” particularly when the firing occurred within such a short time of the hiring. (Vatel v. Alliance of Auto. Mfrs., D.C. Cir., 1/14/11)

3 Lessons Learned … Without Going To Court

1. Start early. Once you notice a performance problem, respond to it quickly. The court highlighted HR’s immediate and ongoing intervention.

2. Try hard. The court noted that McCurdy patiently tried to work with his assistant over 10 months. It just wasn’t happening.

3. Zip up. Your lips by refraining from any comments, jokes or slurs about race, gender and any other protected category. McCurdy had a clean record and you should, too.

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