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Beware temptation to overstate fired worker’s faults

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

Firing an employee is never easy, but there’s no reason to try to justify your decision by piling on a litany of reasons to discharge a poorly performing employee. That just complicates the process. Chances are, a court won’t second-guess you if you simply stick to the strongest reason you have for the firing. It looks far worse to give three or four reasons and gives the employee additional chances to prove you wrong.

In fact, in order to prove discrimination, a former employee has a huge hurdle. He or she has to show the stated reason was false and that the false reason was just a pretext for some form of illegal discrimination such as sex or race bias. If you stick to your best reason, he probably won’t get past the first hurdle.

Recent case:
Toney Pitts, who is black, worked for a housing authority until he was discharged for what his supervisors called poor performance. Pitts’ job had been to manage the housing authority’s Section 8 low-cost housing program. He cried discrimination and sued.

But the trial court said his former employer had a legitimate reason—that under his direction, the agency’s rating by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) fell dramatically. HUD assesses local programs yearly. In this case, the HUD score declined over 30 percentage points from a “high performer” to a “standard performer.” Had the score declined just a few points more, the agency would have been reclassified as a “troubled performer,” endangering federal funding.

Pitts appealed the trial court’s dismissal, arguing that the assessment was wrong. But the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to reinstate his lawsuit. The court said Pitts failed to prove the two things he had to prove—that the reason his employer gave was in fact false and that his employer gave a false reason as a pretext for race discrimination. He had proven neither. (Pitts v. Housing Authority for the City of Huntsville, No. 07-12861, 11th Cir., 2008)

Final note: This was a case where one clearly stated reason for firing was enough. Imagine what could have happened had the agency provided multiple reasons. Chances are, Pitts might have poked holes in at least one.

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