It’s the age-old story: Your company follows proper procedure in dealing with a problem employee. Then a manager opens his mouth and — poof! — the organization’s in serious legal trouble.
The latest installment of the “loose lips sink companies” comes out of federal court in Alabama, where a purchasing agent for a shipbuilding company claimed she’d been the victim of pregnancy discrimination.
Pauline Rumbley initially received positive performance reviews.
But then company officials decided to shift the emphasis in its purchasing program from “tactical” to “strategic” — changing the process from simply ordering materials to a more complicated, multi-level analytic approach.
Rumbley apparently had trouble with the shift in focus, and was the subject of complaints from co-workers concerning her response time on requests for materials.
During this time, Rumbley became pregnant. About eight weeks into the pregnancy, she had a miscarriage and had to miss work.
That occasioned the first blunder on the part of her supervisor, Dan May:
When she asked May to sign a sick leave form to cover the time she’d been out due to the miscarriage, “May told Rumbley ‘that he didn’t want her to start abusing her sick leave. And he asked if (she and her partner) were going to try again.’”
May took steps to improve Rumbley’s performance, including sending her to a three-day seminar designed to “assist her in the transition to a more modern supply chain management” process.
May also assigned Rumbley a special project to reassess the company’s major equipment rental situation. The project would indicate Rumbley’s “strategic process ability,” May said.
Then Rumbley informed May she’d become pregnant again.
Which leads us to blunder No. 2: Upon hearing the pregnancy news, May allegedly said, “Look around, how many pregnant women do you see?”
And then, according to Rumbley, May said “something about keeping it that way … we plan on keeping it that way, or we should keep it that way.”
Still unhappy with her performance, the company put Rumbley on a Performance Improvement Plan.
At that point, Rumbley complained to the firm’s HR director that she was being harassed because she was pregnant. According to court papers, the HR exec responded, “Who’s going to believe you?”
May and Rumbley met several times to discuss her progress under the PIP.
One of those meetings produced May’s third ill-considered statement: He remarked that “even if (the company) had to pay for maternity leave, (Rumbley) sure as hell wouldn’t have a job when she came back.”
Rumbley was eventually fired. May stated she “had significant difficulties even grasping the general concept of strategic purchasing … She also had performance issues with her other job duties, and her co-workers did not have similar struggles.”
In court, the judge came down hard on the company.
May’s remarks “constitute evidence that Rumbley’s termination was prompted by her pregnancy,” the judge said. They were “precisely the type of blatant remarks whose intent could mean nothing other than to discriminate on the basis of some impermissible factor.”
In other words, all of the other steps the company took to deal with Rumbley’s poor performance didn’t count.
In the end, it was the impolitic remarks of one clueless supervisor that sunk the company.
Pretty good ammunition for the argument in favor of managers’ anti-discrimination training.
Cite: Rumbley v. Austal USA. For a look at the full court decision, go here.