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Problem employee both brash and unskilled? Focus on performance issues when disciplining

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Where should you focus if an employee is both difficult to get along with and doesn’t perform as well as she should? It’s actually an easy call. Avoid a potentially successful lawsuit by focusing on poor performance rather than demeanor or other subjective problems.

Recent case: Dr. Joanne Williams, who is black, worked as an emergency room physician. Almost immediately, her supervisor got complaints from residents and other doctors that Williams was loud, rude and generally disagreeable.

They also said her clinical skills were lacking.

Williams’ supervisor chose to focus on her clinical skills and began reviewing her patient-care records. Although he later also described her as a “drama queen” who was loud and “spoke with her hands,” he kept the emphasis on medical care.

Eventually, Williams was transferred out of the ER to an academic setting. She received the same pay and the same benefits as before. She sued, alleging race discrimination.

Williams argued that her mannerisms were somehow connected to her race and that criticizing them was akin to demanding she abide by stereotypes of how black professionals should act.

She claimed her treatment was akin to a law firm that told a female attorney that she didn’t make partner because she didn’t dress the part and needed to go to “charm school.” In that case, the attorney won her case because she was being measured against a stereotype of how a woman should act at work.

The court didn’t buy Williams’ argument, pointing out that the focus had always been on her clinical abilities and not her mode of expression. It said describing her as a “drama queen” had nothing to do with racial stereotyping (Williams v. County of Los Angeles, No. B226750, Court of Appeal of California, 2nd Appellate District, 2012)

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