Human Resources News & Insights

Court: Alcoholic employee should’ve been cut some slack

Even the best employees occasionally turn into poor performers. What should managers be wary of when disciplining or firing employees who’ve gotten positive reviews in the past?

If an employee has taken FMLA leave, that can make the situation even more complicated. Take this recent case as an example:

A sales rep had been highly regarded by his employer. Three out of his four most recent performance evaluations rated him as “exceeding expectations.”

That changed after he took a month of FMLA leave to be treated for alcoholism.

Two weeks after he came back, it was time for his next review. His boss noted that his sales had dropped and there had been problems with his communication skills. The review concluded the employee failed to meet expectations, and he was placed on a 30-day performance improvement plan.

When he failed to bring his numbers back up in time, he was fired — and he sued the company. He claimed he was a good employee and was unfairly terminated because he took FMLA leave.

The employer argued that despite his previous success, his performance started to slip, as his most recent review showed.

But the company lost the case.

The reason: The court wasn’t convinced he would’ve gotten a poor review if he hadn’t taken leave. As the judge noted, missing a month of work must have caused his sales to suffer. The company should have adjusted its standards to account for the time he was gone.

Managers need to be careful about how they evaluate employees who return from medical leave. Even if bias isn’t intentional, companies can still get in trouble when an adverse action is in any way tied to an employee’s use of FMLA.

Cite: Burris v. Novartis Animal Health U.S., Inc.

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