Employee misses goals, gets fired: Disability discrimination?

In an actual court case, an employee who failed to meet goals claimed he was fired because of a disability, not for poor performance. Read our account of the circumstances and see if you can correctly determine the judge’s final decision.

The scene:

CEO Bill Keenan sneered as he took the lid off his salad in the break room. “This new diet I’m on is the absolute worst,” he said to HR director Lynn Rondo.

“I believe it,” said Lynn, glancing at her slice of pizza. “What’s new?”

“I still can’t believe Tom Edwards is suing us,” said Bill. “You know our decision to fire him had nothing to do with his stroke and his resulting speech problems. It was cost-cutting and performance.

“Tom didn’t meet the new goals I laid out for him, so we fired him.”

‘It wasn’t his speech problem’

“I’m still uneasy about his claims that there was no way he could’ve met those goals,” Lynn said.

“He said two staffers never could have made the numbers you expected from him in a single quarter.”

“I set lofty goals for Tom, I admit it,” replied Bill. “But trust me, he needed some motivation ‘cause his numbers were slipping.”

“Were his goals more stringent than his co-workers’?” asked Lynn.

“The point is, this has nothing to do with his speech problem, like he claims,” said Bill. “I gave him goals, and he couldn’t reach them. And we followed procedure when we fired him – down to the letter.”

Tom sued the company for disability discrimination.

Did the company win?

________________________________________________________________

No, the company lost.

The judge noted the company had set specific goals for Tom – and he failed to reach them. The judge found nothing wrong with the company’s procedures in warning and firing Tom.

So what cast doubt on the company’s actions?

None of Tom’s co-workers, even those who were underperforming, were given goals as lofty and difficult to achieve as Tom’s.

That led the judge to believe there was at least a possibility Tom’s termination for coming up short of those goals could have been a pretext for discriminatory behavior – such as discriminating against him because of his speech problem.

Analysis: Goals, good; inconsistency, bad

It’s certainly OK to set high standards for employees to encourage high performance, especially in tight times. But supervisors need to be aware of these two traps:

  • Setting unreachable goals, and
  • Imposing standards inconsistently.

That doesn’t mean everyone’s goals need to be identical – different folks have different abilities. But performance standards must be based on some reasonable metric, like past achievement or new benchmarks based on ongoing company needs.

Cite: Willnerd v. First National Nebraska, Inc.

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