Being placed on improvement plan isn’t automatic proof of poor performance

It may seem logical that being placed on a performance improvement plan—PIP—implies that an employee needs to improve her performance. However, don’t expect a court to simply take your word for it that an employee was doing a poor job. You’ll have to explain why you decided to place the employee on a PIP.

Recent case: LaKeysia, who is black, worked for a state Department of Human Services. She applied for a promotion after her white supervisor urged her to do so. Another black employee also sought the job. That employee was returning to work after winning a discrimination claim against the same white supervisor.

LaKeysia got the promotion, and soon afterward, the other applicant was terminated.

Then the supervisor began criticizing LaKeysia’s work and threatened to demote her. LaKeysia filed an EEOC complaint. Then she was put on a performance improvement plan.

However, LaKeysia was eventually fired and she sued, alleging retaliation for filing the initial complaint. DHS asked the court to toss the case out because it had a legitimate reason for terminating LaKeysia—she allegedly had failed her PIP.

But that wasn’t good enough for the court since the department didn’t provide any details about why it placed LaKeysia on the plan. The court couldn’t evaluate whether the department had legitimate reasons for its action or whether the white supervisor was retaliating against LaKeysia for complaining. (Wilson v. Arkansas Department of Human Services, 8th Cir., 2017)