Disciplining problem employees can get tricky for managers — especially when it’s a lax performer who just got back from medical leave. Here’s how to protect your company against retaliation suits.
Take this recent case:
A department manager took medical leave. While she was out, the company conducted a regularly scheduled audit of her department to measure its performance in various areas. The department failed the test.
When the manager came back, she was told she’d have to raise the department’s score by a certain amount, or — in accordance with company policy — she’d be disciplined and possibly fired.
She quit before that could happen, though, and sued the company. She claimed the new performance goal “changed the conditions of her employment” in violation of FMLA, and felt she was held to those high standards in retaliation for taking leave.
The court threw the case out. Why? Because the law doesn’t grant employees favorable treatment just because they took FMLA leave. Companies have been hit with retaliation suits for scrutinizing an employee’s work more closely than others’ — but in this case, the company was able to show the audit would have happened anyway, and the employee was merely held to a standard set of requirements.
Also, the woman shot herself in the foot when she voluntarily quit. She claimed she was given an impossible goal — which was tough for her to prove since she didn’t even try.
This case shows that, yes, employees can be legally disciplined after returning from FMLA leave. Here are some of the keys to compliance the company followed:
- The company was consistent — The audit standards were clearly established and consistently enforced with all managers. If, on the other hand, the woman was held to higher standards than her peers, it might have been easy to claim retaliation.
- There was nothing new — The woman claimed her job had been changed significantly, but in reality, all the company did was enforce a pre-existing policy.
- It would have happened if she didn’t take leave — The department would have been audited whether the woman took FMLA leave or not. Also, the company made sure the audit covered things the manager should have fixed before her leave, rather than areas that were out of her control because she took time off.
Cite: Chandler v. La Quinta Inns, Inc.