A recent decision of our federal appellate court serves as a reminder that supervisors are the company’s first line of defense and, therefore, underscores the importance of investing in adequate supervisory training. In Acevedo-Parrilla, et al. v. Novartis Ex-Lax, Inc., the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which encompasses Massachusetts, allowed an age discrimination case to go forward to trial. The underlying reason for this decision centered on the supervisor and his lack of consistency in two areas: the supervisor’s failure to document performance problems consistently and the supervisor’s failure to impose discipline consistently.
In this case, the plaintiff, who was 56 years old at the time of his termination, had been working for Ex-Lax for 11 years. A few years prior to his termination, a new supervisor began overseeing the plaintiff. While the plaintiff’s performance record was generally acceptable until this time, by 2006, under the new supervisor, some performance issues emerged; namely, that plaintiff had not followed certain standard operating procedures. In February 2007, the new supervisor terminated the plaintiff, citing the 2006 performance issues as the reason for his discharge.
In deciding to send the case to trial, the court seemed troubled by the following factors: the amount of time that had elapsed between the most recent performance issue and the actual termination; the reason given for the termination was not born out by the performance record; and the fact that an employee who was 22 years younger than the plaintiff was not disciplined for similar conduct. Taken in the aggregate, the court concluded there was enough of a factual dispute for a jury to decide whether or not age discrimination took place.
There were several steps the supervisor could have taken to minimize the company’s exposure, but did not. For example, the supervisor should have documented the plaintiff’s performance issues more carefully, imposed discipline upon the plaintiff as each issue arose, terminated the plaintiff close in time to the final issue, and treated other similarly-situated employees consistently. Had the supervisor buttoned these issues up, the company very likely would have been successful in getting the case dismissed before trial. Because this did not happen, the company is now stuck with the costs and burdens of taking this case through trial.
Providing proper training to supervisors to help avoid these problems is essential. In fact, such training can help shield your organization from costly and time-consuming litigation claims. Royal LLP has designed a comprehensive supervisory workshop series in which we teach your supervisors and managers how to avoid the most common mistakes that lead to employment litigation claims. More information on this series can be found here.