Sudden discipline after exemplary record? Don’t rule out supervisor prejudice

Employees with excellent performance records often head straight to HR the first time they face disciplinary action. And you’re right to worry enough to take a careful look at whether the proposed discipline is warranted.

It’s possible that a boss’s prejudice may have motivated the discipline. If employees have endured months or years of slights related to their race or other protected characteristics, they may be primed to sue you.

How you react to the complaint may mean the difference between winning a lawsuit and losing.

Recent case: James Dorvil, a Haitian immigrant, is black and speaks with a thick accent. However, that didn’t hinder his rise through the ranks at the Burlington Coat Factory.

He got exemplary reviews and regular promotions.

Then Bain Capital took over Bur­lington and installed new supervisors.

Dorvil’s new boss claimed he couldn’t understand Dorvil’s accent and frequently made jokes at his expense, often in front of Dorvil’s subordinates.

At a business lunch, the supervisor joked that the police officer who just walked into the restaurant was looking for Dorvil. He also told a group of employees that if something went missing, look to Dorvil.

Dorvil ignored the comments until the supervisor placed him on a performance improvement plan. That’s when he went to HR and complained about racism. Then, he was terminated.

Dorvil sued, alleging discrimination. The court said his case could go to trial. (Dorvil v. Burlington Coat Factory, No. 09-5778, DC NJ, 2011)