Was it a case of passing bad apples around?

Posted by Melissa Fleischer, Esq. on Oct 24th 2013

As an HR exec, you may want to investigate multiple transfers of the same person to see if managers are avoiding dealing with performance problems.

Here’s a case in point: Two sets of managers at an insurance company decided an administrative assistant “wasn’t a good fit” for their department and helped her find positions in another department within the company.

The first transferred away after a month after hire. The manager said it wasn’t a good match and suggested a different department. The next department hired her for less than a year, with one of two department managers eventually not assigning her work. When one of three administrative assistants was scheduled to be let go, she was chosen and the managers said her lack of the required computer skills was apparent. They helped her go to a third department.

Low performance continued

She lasted three years in the new department, though HR was involved with issues of tardiness, unscheduled overtime and what appeared to be falsely filling work-completion checklists. Finally, there was alleged insubordination, where she refused to assist a manager in filling out forms. She was reprimanded.

The company lost a major client and with increased automation software, they needed to cut one position. Each staff person in the department was asked to rank the admins, and unanimously ID'ed this admin as the lowest performer. She was terminated.

She sued for age and racial discrimination, and took her case all the way to a federal appeals court, which sided with the company: She couldn’t show she was replaced at all, and not by someone younger or of a difference race. There was no evidence that others were insubordinate, and thus were reprimanded differently.   Basically, the company’s i’s were dotted and t’s crossed.

Address quickly

So what went wrong?

The best guess is managers were reluctant to terminate earlier. If issues of work ethic, training, tardiness and attitude aren’t addressed right away, the person might wonder why they suddenly are important. For example, the admin was placed on probation for tardiness; her attendance was perfect during the probation period. Shortly after it ended, she was late every day for nearly three straight weeks. Managers can’t let that slide.

Bottom line: If there are issues of attitude mixed with performance issues, address them right away. We all want to be collegial and give people the benefit of the doubt, but it’s also important to address issues head on.

Cite: Mack v. Wortham & Son, No. 12-20798, 5th Cir., 9/5/13.

Link is here: Manager Tips for Avoiding Legal Pitfalls when Managing Employees