If your organization is like many, someone in HR ultimately decides whether to terminate an employee for poor performance based on supervisor recommendations and supporting documents, such as performance evaluations. That can spell trouble if there’s more going on than meets the eye.

A better approach: Talk directly with the affected employee before giving the bad news. You may learn that the supervisor had an ulterior motive for recommending termination that had nothing to do with performance issues. By hearing the other side of the story, you won’t be caught off-guard later if the employee sues for alleged discrimination or retaliation.

Recent case: Barry McCowan, a black maintenance supervisor for Penske Truck Leasing, received a good evaluation and a merit raise after one year on the job. Then he began having trouble with a supervisor and a co-worker, who allegedly uttered a racial slur.

McCowan’s next written evaluation formed the basis for his race discrimination lawsuit. McCowan had an unsigned copy; the signed copy in HR’s files was an entirely different review. Based on the evaluations it had on file, plus the results of two performance-improvement plans McCowan’s supervisor had prepared, HR decided to fire him. McCowan sued, alleging that his supervisor produced conflicting versions of the second performance evaluation, ignored his complaints about racial slurs and actively sabotaged his ability to meet the performance-improvement plans by “losing” paperwork.

Because HR never spoke to McCowan directly, no one knew about his allegations and the possible efforts to get rid of him. The case now goes to trial. (McCowan v. Penske Truck Leasing, No. 05-73239, ED MI, 2007)  

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