I’ve written before about the difficulty employers face when terminating an employee for performance problems after that employee engages in some protected activity. Because of the specter of a retaliation claim, employers often feel hamstrung, and seldom take the action necessary to rid themselves of a systemic problem employee. Galeski v. City of Dearborn (6th Cir. 8/16/11) [pdf] provides welcome relief to employers facing this dilemma.
Prior to the City’s termination of Daniel Galeski, he had a seven-year history of well-documented performance problems. Two months prior to his termination, Galeski complained that his male supervisor had been sexually harassing him. In the interim, Galeski’s performance problems continued, for which he received reprimands and written warnings. After he failed to improve, and despite his harassment complaint, the City terminated him.
The court agreed with the employer that Galeski’s long history of performance problems, many of which predated his harassment complaints, were fatal to his retaliation claim:
Galeski has a history of violating the City’s policies and being insubordinate…. [I]t appears that the issues that led to Galeski’s termination were inevitable once a more strict supervisor arrived at the Theater…. [H]is job was in danger regardless of his sexual harassment complaints. In light of his repeated issues with failing to wear his uniform and his reaction to his employer revoking his privilege to use the gym, there is no indication in the record that the City of Dearborn’s legitimate reasons for discharging Galeski were pretextual or otherwise invalid.
The lessons for employers?
Don’t wait to terminate. Galeski did not become an insubordinate employee overnight. His performance issues predated his termination by 7 years. Yet, a history of weak and non-confrontational supervisors refused to do anything about it. I’m not saying that you should fire an employee at the first sign of trouble, but there is a line between a fair warning and years of capitulation. The former will put you in good stead defending a lawsuit. The latter could result in a judge or a jury asking why you waited so long and looking for an illegitimate reason for the late-in-the-game termination. Just because this scenario worked out for the City of Dearborn does not mean that it will work out well for every employer in every case.
Document, document, document. There are few terminations that can survive scrutiny without proper documentation. Your odds as an employer go down exponentially if you pair a lack of documentation with a termination on the heels of protected activity. As the Galeski case illustrates, a poor performer is a poor performer, regardless of complaints about harassment or other protected conduct. Without a legitimate paper trail, however, you will find yourself without the ammunition to do anything about it.