Demoting an employee immediately after she returns from maternity leave sounds like a recipe for disaster – so how’d this company do it and win in court?
Good employers know to exercise caution in taking adverse employment actions against protected class members – such as pregnant women taking leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). But, as good employers also know, employees’ performance problems can outweigh any protected class status – as long as those problems are egregious enough to demand action.
Manager Ellen Schaaf was put on a performance improvement plan (PIP) for her “unprofessional management style.” That included – but wasn’t limited to – a tendency to play favorites, a habit of sharing her employees’ confidential performance-evaluation info with other staff members and an ongoing failure to acknowledge her subordinates’ contributions.
Around the same time, Schaaf told her supervisor she was pregnant and would need to take FMLA leave. By the time she took her leave, six months after she’d been given her PIP assignment, Schaaf had ignored a number of PIP deadlines, which her employer had extended several times.
While Schaaf was on leave, productivity and morale improved significantly in her department. Her interim manager also discovered that Schaaf had ignored numerous expense reports and had failed to pay several invoices from outside creditors.
Morale and productivity would plummet
As Schaaf’s return date neared, staff members expressed concern that the department’s improved morale and productivity would go down as soon as Schaaf returned.
So Schaaf was called into her supervisor’s office on the day she came back and given the option of quitting or being demoted.
Schaaf accepted the demotion but immediately sued, claiming her FMLA rights were violated. The company never would’ve discovered her prior deficiencies if she hadn’t taken FMLA leave. Therefore, she claimed the company demoted her because she took leave.
The company countered that it would’ve taken disciplinary action against Schaaf no matter when it discovered her misconduct – it just so happened that it discovered it while she was out. Its actions were entirely unrelated to Schaaf’s leave.
The court agreed with the company. Its reasoning: The purpose of the FMLA is to allow employees to temporarily put their careers on hold to tend to certain personal matters – not to help employees cover up their work-related deficiencies.
The takeaway: You can respond to and discipline protected employees on leave, as long as you have substantial business reasons for doing so. And, as always, make sure you have the records to back up your decision.
Cite: Schaaf v. SmithKline Beecham Corp.