Courts are naturally suspicious when employers trot out subjective discharge reasons like “not a team player” or “fails to inspire subordinates.” Such nebulous terms may mask an underlying discriminatory attitude. Frequently, courts see subjective assessments as a cover for discrimination. They far prefer to see concrete, objective criteria used to evaluate performance.
But what if the employee’s job really does include building collaborative partnerships and fostering cooperation? One way to add credibility to subjective evaluation criteria is to ask co-workers and subordinates for their confidential assessments. That’s the basis for so-called 360-degree evaluations. Those assessments can then confirm the employee’s failure to live up to reasonable expectations.
Recent case: The University of Pittsburgh hired Deborah Furka, who is white, as its director of residence life. The job required working with students and university departments staff to create a “quality living and learning experience for students.” Apparently, her background in law enforcement didn’t prepare her for the job, as she was almost universally disliked.
The university had Furka’s subordinates evaluate her, and she did not score well. Several took the time to outline numerous examples of poor communications and other problems, rating her 1 on a 1–5 scale. Some subordinates charged she created a “toxic workplace.” One even asked for anonymity because she feared Furka would retaliate for pointing out problems.
Then a new supervisor—who is black—arrived on the scene. That supervisor read the subordinates’ evaluations and spent time observing how Furka worked. Shortly, she fired Furka for poor and lack of collaboration.
Furka sued, alleging reverse discrimination. But the court quickly dismissed the case, reasoning that the supervisor’s assessment was backed up by subordinate evaluations and direct observation. (Furka v. University of Pittsburgh, No. 2:06-CV-875, WD PA, 2008)
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