Is this termination for poor performance or ethnic discrimination in the workplace

by on January 5, 2009 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Info Center

Documentation about discipline saved company from ethnic discrimination lawsuit

“You’re not firing me for poor performance,” said Raj Patel. “It’s because of my nationality because I am Indian.”

“Raj, we spoke to you about your performance several times,” said human resources director Donna Sanchez calmly. “Your supervisor documented missed deadlines and customer complaints that you were rude. We sent you written warnings about your performance, but you refused even to acknowledge receipt by signing them. At one point, we even had to suspend you, Raj.”

Harsh comments from boss

“My supervisor called me a ‘pig’ in front of witnesses!” exclaimed Raj.

“That’s unfortunate,” Donna told him. “But she was directing her comments at the night shift and not at you personally.”

Raj shook his head. “What about when she made fun of my accent? And she’s never as nice to Indian employees as she is to the others.”

“I heard about that and I’m sorry,” said Donna, “but the record speaks for itself.”

“We’ll see about that,” said Raj as he stormed out of the office.

Hostile work environment?

Raj sued for ethnic discrimination in the workplace claiming that his supervisor’s “pigs” remark, her teasing about his accent and her unfair treatment contributed to a hostile work environment.

SRG Products claimed it fired Raj due to poor performance, and that management sent him various warnings before terminating his employment.

Raj insisted that the alleged performance shortfalls were due to the stress he felt in the hostile environment from the ethnic discrimination in the workplace his superiors created.

Did the company win?

The decision

Yes. Raj’s suit was dismissed. Raj was unable to produce any statements or other evidence that the court required to support his accusation of ethnic discrimination in the workplace.

To make a case before a court, a plaintiff must show only that he belongs to a protected class, that he was qualified for the position and that after his discharge the employer attempted to fill the position with similarly qualified candidates.

But to win the case, the plaintiff must prove he was the victim of ethnic discrimination.

Raj’s employer produced plenty of documentation to show that Raj had been verbally counseled, given written warnings and suspended. After these disciplinary measures failed, Raj was fired.

Raj’s supervisor had indeed referred to the night shift as “pigs” and had made an inappropriate comment about Raj’s accent.

But the legal system does not hold employers liable for being mean-spirited or insensitive; it holds them liable for discrimination or subjecting people to adverse employment conditions on account of their being a member of a protected class.

Employer did things right

Raj’s employer documented every disciplinary step, detailing Raj’s poor work habits, inefficiencies and mistakes. When Raj refused to sign for receipt of the written disciplinary actions, management made sure that witnesses were present. That way Raj couldn’t claim he’d never received the warnings.

Regardless, the company dodged a bullet in this case. It was saved only because it had carefully documented Raj’s poor performance. With anything less than that sort of diligence, the offhand remarks made by Raj’s supervisor could easily have resulted in a costly judgment against the company.

Cite: Das v. Our Lady of Mercy Med Ctr, United States District Court of New York, No. 00 Civ 2574 (JSM), 4/30/02. Fictionalized for dramatic effect.

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