By Jill Halper
A while back I blogged an article on Performance Improvement Plans and what they really mean for an employee who has just been placed on one, or threatened to be placed on one. More so than any other blog article I have written, this one received the most prolific feedback, with so many reaching out to express how much the article resonated with them and their experience with their current or former employer.
As a result of the positive response received, I have decided to provide to our readers a follow up article to expand on and provide greater detail into the ever offensive, likely unlawful, usually unfair and sham scenario that often wrecks tremendous havoc on one’s work life only to often be followed by an improper, possibly illegal termination.
The Law Related to Performance Improvement Plans
The best place to start with any legal discussion is with the law. As you likely know, the law is derived from statutes and case law, also called common law. In the matter of performance improvement plans as they relate to discrimination in the workplace, the statutory law is generally designed to protect employees. As discussed in my prior article on this topic, the federal law as promulgated in the ADEA, ADA and and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and as essentially mimicked by state law, prohibits discrimination and makes it unlawful to treat certain classes of employees (i.e. age over 40, race, religion, maternity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, national origin) adversely because of their age, gender, disability etc. As such, when an employer treats an employee adversely, such as a demotion or termination, for reasons based on any of those characteristics, it may be UNLAWFUL, and they could be found liable and subject to compensatory damages and sometimes punitive damages, which may translate into an increased severance package or a financial settlement to the grieved employee. The statutes also prohibit retaliation by an employer for any complaints or claims of discrimination made by any of these protected employees. In other words, if you believe that you are being discriminated against at work and you put your employer on notice of this and they subsequently terminate you, for no legitimate reason, you may also have a retaliation claim. It is important to note that placing an employer on notice does not necessarily mean filing formal claims against them. Simply communicating to them that you believe you are being discriminated against at work will suffice for this purpose. So, it is possible that you can make them aware that you are being discriminated against or treated disparately, and still go on to work there without issue. But it is more often the case that once you make these complaints, you are likely looking for a way out and they are likely looking for a way to get you out, so at least you have ammunition now to pursue a retaliation claim (in addition to a discrimination claim) if they do go and terminate you for no legitimate reason.
So how does this relate to the subject of the Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs)? As described above, while the statutes are pretty clear about the unlawfulness of discrimination and retaliation in the workplace, the case law helps set forth what constitutes discrimination and retaliation and how one would be able to make out a successful cause of action for these claims. And this is where it could get more complicated for the grieved employee seeking to prove discrimination or retaliation. In the landmark case, McDonnel Douglas Corp. v. United States, 411 U.S. 792, 793, 93 S. Ct. 1817, 1820, 36 L. Ed. 2d 668 (1973), the court established what has been termed the McDonnell Douglas framework which is used to this day in analyzing and determining liability in discrimination cases. Under this framework, where there is no DIRECT evidence of discrimination (such as an email telling an employee that they are too old and making too much money), and a claimant or plaintiff is attempting to prove discrimination by indirect evidence (such as they were treated differently than other employees) the employee/plaintiff must first make out their prima facie case of discrimination by showing that they were in a protected class, qualified for the job, and that they were treated adversely under circumstances giving rise to discrimination. The burden then shifts to the employer/defendant to show that the reason they were treated adversely was not related to being in a protected class, but rather was due to a legitimate work-related reason such as non-performance or some sort of disciplinary issue. Under the McDonnell Douglas framework, once the employer puts forth evidence that there was a “legitimate reason” for the adverse action taken against the employee, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff/employee to show that the supposed legitimate reason proffered by the employer is a sham, false or not legitimate and that the acts of the employer were actually motivated by discrimination.
A PIP Is a Tool Used to Fire You!
Your employer certainly understands how the discrimination laws work, as summarized above. Thus, it is equally important that employees understand this as well, especially those who are dealing with a PIP at work, so that they know what they need to do when faced with this situation. As discussed in my prior article, employers with discriminatory motives who are looking for a “legitimate” reason to terminate someone will use the PIP as a way of establishing and documenting a performance reason, even where none exists. As a result, the PIP is a tool used by employers not to help employees improve, but rather to help employers meet their burden of proving that the adverse action taken against the employee is “legitimate, and that their actions were not unlawfully motivated by discriminatory animus. Employers and in particular, their human resources departments, are well versed in discrimination law and they know that if they terminate someone in a protected class, they will be held to the above framework in defending a discrimination suit. Therefore, they must show that there are performance issues and that despite their good faith attempts to help the employee improve, the employee is deficient and there are solid grounds for termination NOT rooted in discrimination.
Methods Employees Can Use to Fight Back
So, what do you do the minute you learn that you are going to be placed on a PIP and you believe that it is unwarranted or not “legitimate”? Just as your employer is and has been plotting their defense by having placed you on this sham PIP in order to document the legitimacy of the adverse actions they intend to take against you, you need to start plotting a strategy that will help you keep or prolong your employment as well as a strategy for prevailing on discrimination claims once you lose your job – WHICH YOU LIKELY WILL – if you are placed on an undeserved PIP.
Lawyer Up, Your Employer Already Has
Given what has been explained above, the first thing you should do is call one of our employment attorneys. Your employer no doubt has counsel; you should have counsel as well given what is at stake. The future of your employment and your ability to earn a living is being messed with and you need to be well advised and to make sure your rights are protected. There are very specific deadlines called statutes of limitations which provide a certain amount of time within which you are permitted to bring discrimination claims, wage claims and whistle blower claims against your employer, at which time thereafter you are forever precluded from doing so. So, if nothing else you should understand what those end dates are. More importantly, and something an attorney will walk you though is how to formally rebut the findings in the PIP. It is important that your personnel file includes these rebuttals because if and when it gets to a point where you are terminated and bring claims, the matter will often hinge on the legitimacy issue and whether the PIP was warranted or not. Certainly, if you are being told that you need improvement in certain areas and you disagree, or if you are being told in your PIP reviews that you are not improving or not meeting the goals of the PIP and you disagree, that is something you want to document in writing and refute, so it is in your personnel file if and when you need it. Another tip we provide to our clients is to quickly and articulately inform your employer that you believe you are being treated unfairly or being discriminated against and that the PIP seems to be motivated by same. In doing so, that is something that can be used to help prove retaliation. This strategy can often buy you some more time at your job as the key to a retaliation claim is causation and the key to causation is timing of the termination relative to the claims asserted. If the date of termination follows closely the date of the complaint, it is easier to establish retaliation, and the employers know this. So, by lodging a complaint that places the employer on notice that you believe you are being discriminated, the employer might be less inclined to make a swift termination. While you will very likely be terminated at some point, making the complaint will often buy you some time, which translates into more paychecks and more opportunity to get your ducks in a row for filing formal claims and a potential lawsuit. Our office has additional tactics and strategies we use to help protect our clients when they are placed on or even threatened with an undeserved PIP, so feel free to contact us immediately, should that be you.
A PIP Can Be Considered An Adverse Action
One final important point relative to the PIP discussion is the matter of what is considered an adverse action. As mentioned above, the adverse action is an essential component of making out a discrimination case. While an adverse action almost always means a demotion or termination, it CAN also include other acts by your employer that materially alter or affect the terms and conditions of your employment. Case law here generally provides that an adverse employment action is one which is “more disruptive than mere inconvenience or alteration of job responsibilities” and usually is meant to include actions that cause a significant change in employment status such as hiring, firing, failing to promote and reassignment.” Terry v, Ashcroft 336 F. 3d 128 (2d Cir. 2003). However, there is some recent case law that has introduced a broader interpretation of what constitutes an adverse action and has determined that being placed on a PIP in certain instances may be an adverse action. In the case of Amato v. Hearst Corp., aff’d, 149 Conn. App. 774, 89A.3d 077 (2014), the court stated that the threat of termination of the Plaintiff under a PIP, “in conjunction with the Plan’s imposition of new, burdensome conditions of employment was sufficient to constitute an adverse employment action”. This case also discussed other factors to be taken into consideration when determining if the act of being placed on a PIP is tantamount to an adverse action, such as whether the mandates of the PIP restricted the employer’s freedom by requiring them to be in their office for longer periods of time than other employees. Another factor to consider is whether the PIP negatively impacts your personnel file and reputation in a way that might prevent future employment opportunities. In another case, the court held that whether an undesirable employment action qualifies as being adverse is a fact specific, contextual determination. Zelnik v. Fashion Inst. of Tech., 464 3d 217, 226 (2d Cir. 2006).
The bottom line is that the mere act of being placed on a PIP might constitute an adverse action in and of itself – even before and without a demotion or termination. This will often come down to the details and a totality of the circumstances analysis. In the event you believe the PIP is not justified, discriminatorily motivated and has materially altered your employment, you might have a case of discrimination just by having been placed on an unwarranted PIP by your employer. This also means that the clock to file a suit could start running from the date you are placed on a discriminatory PIP, which is another reason you should contact our employment attorneys immediately.
Attorney Jill Halper can be reached at (203) 255-4150 or firstname.lastname@example.org