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Good faith is the key to litigation-Proof employment decisions

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

Employment decisions don’t have to be perfect—they just have to be based on good faith. That’s good news, because it’s a fact that supervisors and managers will make mistakes.

What that means: Just because an employee can prove management did something wrong doesn’t guarantee she will win a lawsuit.

Recent case: Shehnaz Khan, who was born in 1959, worked for Eli Lilly for five years as a biologist until she was fired for allegedly falsifying an experiment she was working on. Khan claims she simply misunderstood the appropriate protocol for recording experimental data and then took it upon herself to “correct” some of the experimental measurements. Eli Lilly called her conduct falsification.

Khan sued, alleging age discrimination. She tried to attack Eli Lilly’s discharge reason—test falsification—by explaining that her employer was wrong. Her argument: Since she hadn’t intentionally falsified the experiment, the company’s stated discharge reason was wrong. Plus, she claimed she had been denied proper training and had been moved around “like a spare part.” She couldn’t, however, point to any other similarly situated employee who had been treated differently.

The court dismissed her case. It said that poking holes in the company’s reason wasn’t good enough. If the company made a mistake but acted in good faith, it didn’t matter if it was right or wrong. What mattered is that it believed it was discharging Khan for a valid reason. (Khan v. Eli Lilly and Company, No. 1:06-CV-0766, SD IN, 2008)

Final note: This case is good news for employers. As long as a termination decision is made in good faith, chances are it will be upheld—even if it turns out to be factually wrong. Of course, that doesn’t mean employers shouldn’t investigate wrongdoing claims before termination—that’s part of using good faith. But don’t sweat a little doubt.

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