Never seem to be in a hurry — hurrying betrays a lack of control over yourself, and over time. Always seem patient, as if you know that everything will come to you eventually. Become a detective of the right moment; sniff out the spirit of the time, the trends that will carry you to power. Learn to stand back when the time is not quite yet ripe, and strike fiercely when it has reached fruition.
Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power, Law 35: Master the Art of Timing
Last week the EEOC announced that a nationwide health care company headquartered in Scottsdale, Arizona will pay $150,000 and furnish other relief to settle a lawsuit for pregnancy discrimination brought by the EEOC.
Matrix Medical’s timing could not have been worse: it rescinded a job offer for a credentialing manager position within a week of learning the applicant was pregnant.
Understand, incorrectly timing an employment termination can be very costly to your company; it will fuel the perception that your decision was for an unlawful reason. Poorly timed your HR decisions will send your company into the matrix (pun intended) occupied by the EEOC, courts, and lawyers. This article provides tips for timing employment decisions to protect your company and treat your employees fairly.
CAUGHT IN THE MATRIX
This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.
Morpheus, The Matrix
Matrix Medical offered a job to Patricia Andrews after a lengthy interview process that included her flying to Arizona twice for in-person interviews at Matrix Medical’s Scottsdale headquarters. Within a week after learning she was pregnant, Matrix Medical accused Andrews of not informing the company she was pregnant during the interview process and then withdrew its job offer.
So began Matrix Medicals’ journey into the legal system. Andrews filed an EEOC charge of discrimination against Matrix Medical. The EEOC then sued Matrix Medical on Andrews’ behalf, alleging pregnancy discrimination. A settlement agreement was reached last week that requires Matrix Medical to pay $150,000 and issue a letter of apology to Andrews. The agreement also requires the company to review and revise its equal employment opportunity policies, revise its personal leave-of-absence policy to include a provision that pregnant employees may take leave during their first six months of employment, and train its supervisors on Title VII and other anti-discrimination laws.
“Pregnancy discrimination remains a major barrier for women in the workforce,” said EEOC Phoenix District Office Regional Attorney Mary Jo O’Neill. “More than 40 years after the passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, employers still choose not to hire pregnant applicants or to fire employees after learning they are pregnant. The EEOC will continue its efforts to ensure pregnant applicants and employees are able to work free from the threat of discrimination.”
HOW TO STAY OUT OF THE MATRIX
I’m trying to free your mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it.
Morpheus, The Matrix
Correctly timing an employment decision requires a manager to (1) understand whether terminating or disciplining the subject employee presents a high risk to the company and (2) implement the decision after the risk has been mitigated.
High risk employees include:
- Employees who may have mental or physical disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
- Employees requesting FMLA leave, on FMLA leave, or who have just come off of FMLA leave
- Pregnant or recently pregnant employees
- Employees who have recently made sexual harassment or discrimination complaints
- Minority employees
- Older (over 40) employees
- Employees who have recently complained of illegal activity (i.e. whistle blowers)
Terminating or disciplining an employee who occupies one or more of these categories presents the increased risk of a lawsuit. The risk of a lawsuit and/or losing that lawsuit will be reduced to near zero if your company (1) properly documents the lawful basis for the termination and (2) correctly times the termination.
Here is an article as to how to effectively administer and document discipline or a termination.
Properly timing discipline or a termination is about making sure that there can be no perception or inference that the termination is for an unlawful reason. For example, if an employee complains to her manager on a Monday that she has been the victim of sexual harassment, and she is fired later that week, most people will reasonably conclude that she was fired because she reported sexual harassment.
The time period between when an employee reports harassment, discrimination, pregnancy, or disability, and when the employee is fired is known as “temporal proximity.” The closer the timing, the more the EEOC and courts will infer that the termination was for an unlawful reason (e.g. reporting harassment), and not for a legitimate reason (e.g. poor work performance). Courts have stated:
- Where adverse employment action “follows hard on the heels of protected activity, the timing often is strongly suggestive of retaliation.”
- “A two-and-one-half month period between protected activity and adverse employment action can be sufficient to establish causal connection needed for a prima facie case.”
- “The inference of a causal connection becomes tenuous with the passage of time.”
- “A nine month period between the protected conduct and alleged retaliation undermines the inference of causation.”
- “Three and four month periods have been held insufficient to establish a causal connection based on temporal proximity.”
There is no definitive period of time employed by the courts to determine whether an employee’s termination was for a legitimate or unlawful reason. Court decisions and jury verdicts depend on the facts of each case and the inclinations of judges and jury panels. What is certain is that the greater the temporal proximity, the higher the risk to the employer.
Here is your take away: be patient in disciplining or terminating an employee who has recently reported harassment, discrimination, pregnancy, or disability; and, do not otherwise treat that employee differently after he or she has complained. Federal Express recently learned this the hard way when it allegedly placed an employee who had complained under close surveillance – she was the only employee whose comings and goings to the bathroom were tracked, whose managers were constantly surveilling her, and who was written up for unexcused absences even when she provided doctor’s notes excusing these absences. A jury awarded Sheryl Hubbell $85,600 in combined front and back pay, $30,000 in “non-economic damages,” and $403,950 in punitive damages against Federal Express.
If you have a legitimate basis for disciplining or terminating an employee, and the employee has recently engaged in protected activity (e.g. made a discrimination complaint or requested ADA leave), consider contacting legal counsel to develop a plan for proceeding forward. Regardless, make sure all your decisions are legitimate and lawful and, equally so, that they will be perceived that way by others.
In sum, if reasonable people believe you have not violated the law, then you need not fear being targeted by ex-employees and plaintiffs lawyers:
What are you trying to tell me? That I can dodge bullets?
No, Neo. I’m trying to tell you that when you’re ready, you won’t have to.
Art Bourque is an AV rated commercial and employment lawyer who has been practicing law in Phoenix, Arizona for 27 years. Art provides employment law training to help businesses operate efficiently and avoid mistakes; he is also an experienced litigator. Art can be found at www.bourquelaw.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, 602.559.9550, linkedin, or trail running with his dog, Eli.