Employees who have to work in a hostile work environment may have a hard time doing their jobs well. When resultingleads to fire someone, expect trouble. Usually, poor performance is a rock solid discharge reason. But a court may ignore that principle and conclude that the real reason for discharge was illegal discrimination.
Your best bet is to address any hint at a hostile work environment right away. If an employee complains, investigate and fix the problem before it affects performance.
Recent case: Louis, who is black, was fired from his job as a steel fabricator after he ran a forklift over a steel plate and then got into an argument about the accident with a white co-worker.
Louis was fired. The company said the reason was that he had been the aggressor in the argument and had a poor performance history. His most recentnoted that he had difficulty getting along with others and sometimes ignored his supervisor’s directions.
He sued, alleging that he had worked in a racially hostile work environment since the day he was hired.
Louis recounted managers’ frequent use of the term “boy” to address him. He described incidents in which co-workers used the N-word and suggested President Obama would be assassinated if he won re-election. Plus, co-workers sometimes threatened him. His supervisors either ignored his complaints or told him he was old enough to defend himself.
Louis also argued that the harassment contributed to his poor performance reviews which then contributed to his discharge.
First, the court concluded that what Louis described could constitute a racially hostile work environment—especially the frequent use of racial slurs and the term “boy.” It also noted that management not only failed to stop the harassment, but may have participated.
It also concluded that if a hostile work environment affects work performance, then disciplining the employee for that poor performance may not be justified. In fact, it may instead be evidence of discrimination. The court said the case deserved a jury trial. (Billips v. Benco Steel, No. 5:10-CV-95, WD NC, 2013)