Every employer’s nightmare: you fire someone for a performance problem or a policy violation. She sues alleging some kind of unlawful discrimination. Adding fuel to the fire, she drudges up some evidence that your stated reason for termination may not have been the real reason — i.e., pretext. Next thing you know it’s hello jury, buh-bye dollars.
PEC Management in Pennsylvania just learned this the hard way. It terminated manager Theresa Buffington from one of its Burger King Stores after she asked a non-managerial employee to run errands for her. Apparently this was a policy no-no, so PEC fired Buffington. Wouldn’t you know it, there was more to the story. Buffington’s teenage son had cancer; she missed work over the years to care for him. [I hope that little red light is going off in your heads: danger, the ADA is at play here, as its “association provision” covers those associated with an individual with a disability, though they themselves may have no impairment].
In the ensuing litigation Buffington introduced the following evidence: the policy prohibiting non-managerial employees from running errands during work time was not strictly enforced; Buffington’s manager made comments about how much work time she missed to care for her son; Buffington’s performance reviews were uniformly stellar.
The result? A jury finding of over $200,000.
Prevention tips: Get your story straight on termination decisions. Make sure there is no issue of pretext floating around. This means checking performance documentation and the consistency of policy enforcement. And make sure all supervisory employees understand how broad the anti-discrimination protections really are.