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Troublesome trainee? Document difficulty from Day One

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Managers and supervisors tend to cut some slack for new employees. After all, novice employees need training before mastering new skills. But if a trainee is beginning to look like she’s not catching on, it’s time to document her efforts and results—plus those of her fellow trainees.

Here’s why: If you have to cut her loose, and she happens to be a member of a protected class (such as race, national origin, age or gender), you’ll want to be able to show she was treated just like every other trainee. You’ll want to show that it was her failing, not inadequate training, that was at fault.

Recent case: Maneke Purchase, who is black, began training to work as a claims representative at the Goldsboro office of the Social Security Administration (SSA). The job was a one-year probationary spot in which she was supposed to learn how to conduct initial interviews with people applying for various Social Security benefits.

Part of Purchase’s training consisted of watching interactive videos four hours per day. She spent the rest of her time watching a mentor do the actual job and assisting him when necessary.

Purchase’s mentor wasn’t particularly patient and began criticizing her for being “unfocused and distracted.” Managers noted she seemed “unable to transfer the ... training to the practical aspects of her job.” When she also began having trouble arriving at work on time, she was disciplined.

Finally, the SSA fired Purchase before she reached permanent status. She sued, alleging race discrimination.

But the SSA showed the court plenty of proof Purchase was doing a substandard job, plus affidavits from three fellow trainees who said they saw no evidence of race discrimination. The court threw out her case based on the solid documentation that showed she couldn’t do her new job. Plus, there was no evidence that anyone outside her protected class was treated more favorably during the training period. (Purchase v. Astrue, No. 5:06-CV-89, ED NC, 2008)

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