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OK to consider ambition when selecting who goes, who stays

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training,Performance Reviews

Sometimes, employees get into a comfort zone and want to keep doing things the way they always have been doing them.

That can be especially true for those who aren’t ambitious and don’t necessarily want to move up within the organization. Those employees may be perfectly happy remaining frontline supervisors, for example. They may be doing good work, getting decent reviews—and still frustrating the heck out of upper management. Simply put, such employees may never advance because they don’t want to.

But if your company’s business strategy includes promotion from within and constant innovation, unambitious employees may serve as poor role models. You may, in fact, want to ease them out in favor of new employees.

Before you do, consider ways to light a fire under the feet of complacent employees. Have a serious discussion about their places in the company. Discuss reasonable expectations. Let them know that maintaining the status quo isn’t going to be good enough. Then, make sure your evaluation process measures what’s lacking—such as refusing to participate in further training or education.

Here’s why this is crucial: If “set-in-their-ways” employees are older workers, and your more ambitious employees are under 40, the older ones may think age discrimination is the real reason they’re being pressured. And that can lead to a needless lawsuit.

Recent case: Deborah Ruff, who does not have a college degree and is older than age 40, worked for Target as a department manager. She received good evaluations for several years. But then a new regional manager began encouraging employees into ever-higher management positions. Target also began seeking out college-educated people to fill management positions.

Ruff wasn’t interested in more education or even in a promotion to store manager. But several of her younger co-workers were. In fact, the new regional manager was greatly impressed by one such employee who was working on a master’s degree in his free time.

Target instituted a new performance evaluation format, which included factors such as energy, enthusiasm, execution and excellence. Ruff was rated poorly in several factors. When Target eventually fired her for poor performance, Ruff filed an age discrimination lawsuit.

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed her case. It reasoned that the company’s preference for a younger employee working on his master’s degree over an older employee who was uninterested in promotion wasn’t age discrimination. It was merely an effort to create a work force in tune with such business objectives as promotion from within. (Ruff v. Target Stores, No. 05-2331, 4th Cir., 2007)

Final note: Ruff also had claimed the store was understaffed, which meant she couldn’t reasonably meet management’s performance expectations. But Target provided a long list of her deficiencies, such as spending time gossiping and her habit of leaving work without telling anyone. Based on testimony, the court said there were plenty of reasonable expectations she wasn’t meeting. 

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