As the current business culture evolves into one riddled with legal battles and threats of lawsuits coming from discharged employees, many managers and supervisors feel cornered when addressing employee performance evaluations. Even those employers who follow stringent documentation guidelines often feel pressured into keeping unproductive employees in their positions or giving ambiguous performance feedback, due to their fear of employees taking legal action against the company.
Lawsuits charging discrimination typically are a result of negative evaluations or adverse employment actions. Much to their leaders’ dismay, the employees they fired for valid reasons can win such cases thanks in part to their very own performance evaluation procedures. Using subjective performance standards, failing to effectively address performance problems and not clearly warning employees about the consequences of unsatisfactory performance are the three most common reasons why jurors award damages and appeals courts uphold those judgments. While employers do have the right to insist on quality and productivity from every employee, they must also make legally defensible decisions when it’s time to reprimand or terminate an employee.
For any viable evaluation and disciplinary system to work fairly, evaluators must have proper qualifications and training. The more specific their evaluation procedure, the less likely supervisors are to make a costly legal error. Therefore, employers should supply managers with specific guidelines for acceptable supervisory actions. Additionally, companies should build in a level of higher authority for senior management when they must make close judgment calls, analyze unique problems, or terminate an employee for which the prior documentation is less complete.
Good documentation of evaluations and disciplinary action is critically important, as it provides credible evidence to help verify whether an employee has received prior notice concerning a particular rule or deviation from acceptable job performance. It also provides a record of whether an employee has previously been disciplined and, if so, the appropriate form of discipline for subsequent misconduct. In addition, it creates a vehicle for examining precedents when one employee engages in the same or similar conduct that has resulted in discipline of other employees.
When designing a performance appraisal process, managers must be careful to appraise employees based on job-related criteria and maintain adequate documentation. Develop a consistent appraisal process for all company employees. Any deviation from these objectives could result in costly legal battles.
Managers and supervisors can take several concrete steps to ensure consistency, objectivity, accuracy, and fairness throughout the performance appraisal process. Use the following guidelines to manage employees within legal limits, without paralysis.
1. Clearly Communicate Expectations. Managers must consistently communicate standards or expectations to employees and clearly identify each aspect of the required performance. If an employee fails to meet expectations, address the deficiency immediately (or as soon as reasonably practical) and specify where the employee’s performance requires improvement. When employees don’t know their assessment criteria, they can win a legal battle by simply stating, “I didn’t know what was expected of me.” Be sure to specify objectively measurable performance, such as quality, quantity, and timeliness of work, as well as important soft skills, such as teamwork, initiative, judgment, integrity, and leadership.
2. Perform Candid Appraisals. Rather than let a fear of lawsuits affect your ability to conduct performance ratings, address performance issues consistently for all employees on a timely basis. Be accurate and objective in your performance ratings, and remember to always rate poor performance as well as good performance. When you fail to point out poor performance, the problem continues, as employees cannot correct problems they are unaware of. Additionally, failure to document poor performance is legally risky should the employee later be discharged and sue for wrongful (or retaliatory) termination. Consistently addressing issues of concern with employees defends against the “I didn’t know I wasn’t meeting performance expectations” claim.
3. Maintain Objectivity At All Times. Focus the performance evaluations on objective job-related criteria. Examples of objective criteria that courts have upheld include quantity, quality, or timeliness of work and specifically articulated expectations for interpersonal skills, teamwork, exercise of judgment, and displays of initiative. You can establish objective expectations even with subjective standards when you articulate what you consider acceptable behavior. For example, you may say, “You will exercise better judgment if you come to me early and let me know you can’t meet a deadline so that I can help you prioritize your workload.”
4. Stick To Job-Based Criteria. Always relate the appraisal to the employee’s particular job. If an item on the evaluation form is not relevant to an employee, indicate “not applicable” in the appropriate space. Also be sure to consider the full rating period. Avoid the tendency to let recent performance events cloud what may have happened months earlier. Finally, compare the employee’s performance to a norm or performance standard rather than the performance of other employees.
5. Record And Memorialize. Put all evaluations in writing and document any verbal feedback made during the meeting. Keep the language in written proposals simple and as easy to understand as possible.
6. Be Specific. Review appraisals to ensure that both high and low ratings have sufficient documentation and anecdotal information that details what the employee did or did not do to earn the rating. Avoid vague or descriptive personal criteria that others could misinterpret.
7. Address Performance Problems Promptly. Discuss and/or deal with performance problems at the time they occur. If the employee’s performance is unsatisfactory, immediately counsel the employee on deficiencies and suggest concrete ways to improve performance. The courts may question your motive in a poor performance discharge if the incident prompting the discharge occurred substantially prior to the time of the discharge.
8. Specify the Consequences Of Non-Performance. Clearly specify a final warning on the performance appraisal if the employee’s performance is so poor that a demotion, change in assignment, or discharge may occur. This will help defend against the single most common legal deficiency in the performance management process: the employee’s truthful claim that “I didn’t know this adverse action would occur if I didn’t improve or correct my performance.” Employees routinely win lawsuits with such a claim because supervisors often don’t like to give negative feedback due to concerns about defensive confrontations, a desire not to hurt a likeable employee’s feelings, or worst of all, the fear of drawing a lawsuit that alleges discrimination or harassment.
9. Maintain Consistency. Be consistent with performance appraisals and any corresponding pay adjustments. Document poor performance if it is a basis to delay or deny a pay adjustment just as you would document good performance to substantiate a pay raise. Inconsistency will reflect poorly in any subsequent legal proceeding, especially when the employee claims that he or she was singled out for negative action. Consistency further enhances your ability to defend against discrimination claims, as it demonstrates that the needs of the particular job consistently required adherence to concrete, well-articulated performance expectations, and that all similarly situated employees are held to the same standards.
10. Plan Your Documentation. Contrary to popular belief, poor documentation techniques actually increase your chances of liability in a lawsuit. Avoid making any notes on appraisal forms that the courts could view as discriminatory or that reflect a “mixed motive.” Avoid contrived or pre-textual statements such as “the chemistry isn’t right.” Also, minimize your use of labels, such as “self starter,” unless you tie it to a measurable performance standard, in this case “initiative.” When in doubt, have a jury who doesn’t know you or the employee review the appraisal. Can they misinterpret it? Above all else, never backdate appraisals and never attempt to document something that did not occur. Always document events as they occur to assure that your memory is fresh and your examples are relevant.
11. Be Careful When Referring To Job Protected Leave In Performance Evaluations. Front-line leaders often don’t realize that comments they make on performance evaluations can come back to haunt them. That’s especially true when those comments relate to absences that are covered by job-protected leave, such as the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Several recent FMLA cases have concluded that commenting upon an employee’s absence due to authorized FMLA leave is the legal equivalent of interfering with the right to take such leave, giving rise to substantial damages against the employers.
In Goelzer v. Sheboygan County, An Administrative Assistant got consistently good performance evaluations for 20 years. She took FMLA leave for her own serious health condition and to care for her ill mother. On her performance appraisal, her supervisor wrote, “[Y]ou were out of the office having eye surgery. In the past two years, using sick leave and vacation, you were out of the office 113 days. As the only support person in the office, this has presented challenges in the functionality and duties associated with the office.” When she was terminated on performance grounds, she sued. A Federal Appeals Court concluded that Goelzer presented compelling evidence for a jury to believe that she was fired for taking FMLA leave. The Court emphasized the supervisor’s evaluation language, which expressed frustration with her use of FMLA leave, the total absence of documentation supporting any concern with her deficient skill set, and her consistent good performance ratings prior to her FMLA leave.
Employers cannot interfere with or discriminate against an employee who exercises FMLA rights. Taking FMLA or other job-protected leave does not insulate an employee from performance-based adverse actions. But, in order to effectively establish that the adverse action is due to performance deficiencies and not the exercise of FMLA rights, the facts must support and document an appropriate, job-related and non-discriminatory explanation.
When you know, understand, and implement the criteria for lawful performance management, you enable your company to operate at peak efficiency while you stay within specific legal parameters. The more proactive steps you take to reduce your chances of a wrongful termination lawsuit, the more successful and lawful your company becomes.