Judges don’t want your job. They don’t see courtrooms as publicly funded HR offices, and will often try to defer to employer decisions as much as possible. That’s a huge advantage for employers.
Capitalize on that by giving the court something to hang a favorable decision on. That something is often a clear and fair disciplinary process.
Judges love it when employers give their employees a chance to improve. They like to see reasonable and objective. They want to see records (created contemporaneously) showing all those efforts and how the employee responded.
The result: Employees who fail to rise to the occasion don’t usually fare well in court.
Recent case: James Haigh was 60 years old when he went to work for Gelita as a senior process engineer. Because he had been involved in a car accident before joining the company, he needed reasonable accommodations. Those included the help of an assistant to perform visual inspections that were part of his job.
For the first few years, things went fairly well. Haigh scored in the middle of the ratings scale on his annual evaluations, earning a “good” rating. That, according to the company, meant he was actually the lowest-ranked process engineer in his section. His supervisor ascribed the relatively low, but acceptable, score to Haigh’s “interpersonal and communication problems.”
When Haigh got a new supervisor, the criticism increased. Haigh and his boss began meeting with HR to discuss expectations. During those meetings, the new supervisor said that Haigh inappropriately tried to delegate his responsibilities and sometimes provided vague and misleading information. He noted that Haigh’s communication andstill left much to be desired.
Haigh, on the other hand, blamed some of his problems on the fact that he had lost his helper, which was a reasonable accommodation for his disability.
Finally, when things didn’t improve—and Haigh actually refused to work with the new supervisor—he was fired at age 66.
Haigh sued, alleging age discrimination and failure to accommodate disabilities. He claimed that because he was still rated as “good,” he was meeting his employer’s legitimate expectations.
The court disagreed, handing a victory to Gelita. (Haigh v. Gelita, No. 09-3479, 8th Cir., 2011)
Final note: The court noted that Gelita hired Haigh when he was already 60 years old and kept him on until he was 66. It reasoned that it wouldn’t make sense for a company to hire an older employee and then fire him on account of his age. While that wasn’t the determining factor, it was another bit of evidence Gelita could use to show its HR policies weren’t ageist.
Haigh didn’t succeed on his disabilities claim, either. Although the judge allowed the claim to go to the jury, it apparently didn’t see discrimination. Perhaps the fact that the company had hired someone it knew was disabled and might need accommodations colored its verdict.
Bottom line: Neither judges nor juries want to second-guess employment decisions made by seemingly reasonable employers. Don’t give them any reason to doubt your motives.
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