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Coaching in Code: Keep Race Out of Performance Discussion

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If you’re an HR professional, manager or executive, you wear a lot of hats. Right? One of those hats is as a performance management coach. Coaching is always well intended … at least it’s supposed to be. But, as one court recently noted, be very careful when coaching—you might just end up wearing a defendant’s hat in a discrimination lawsuit ...

Case in Point: Troy Jones, an assistant manager at a U.S. Bank branch in Eugene, Oregon, was apparently having communications issues in his managerial role. His branch manager, Kathy Waisenen coached Jones on his approach, allegedly stating, “Be careful how you talk to your crew and customers. You’re a big, black intimidating guy."

Some time after that incident, Jones made a $50 personal loan to a bank customer in violation of the bank’s ethical rules. The customer he lent the money to complained to the bank that Jones was making threatening phone calls to collect repayment. Waisenen fired Jones for breaking bank rules and allegedly reiterated the “big black intimidating guy” statement when she showed him the door.

Jones sued for race discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The bank denied the charge, saying Jones was fired for violating the bank’s strict ethical rules.

The result: The court ruled in favor of Jones and sent the case to the jury. It noted that “Waisenen's alleged labeling of [Jones] as a ‘big, intimidating black man' who ‘needs to watch what' he says constitutes direct evidence that plaintiff's race, and stereotypes related to his race, played a role in Waisenen's decision to terminate plaintiff's employment.” (Jones v. U.S. Bank Nat'l Ass'n d/b/a U.S. Bank, D. Or., 7/11/11)

3 Lessons Learned … Without Having to Go to Court

1. Focus strictly on skills. While Waisenen was attempting to coach Jones to be a better communicator, she failed to explicitly tell him how to effectively improve his verbal or written skills.

2. Avoid body language. Waisenen made comments about her employee’s race, gender and size. Never go there.

3. Never stand by. The court also noted that the Waisenen stood by and did nothing when another co-worker made a racial remark to Jones. She missed the “See it, Stop it, Report it” rule that goes with wearing a manager’s hat.

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