Employment lawyers and HR professionals generally preach that employees view “it’s not a good fit” to explain their termination of employment as code for discrimination or retaliation.
But yesterday, a federal court of appeals explained that this well-intentioned but often misconstrued rationale isn’t always a thinly-veiled, pretextual excuse to fire someone. Sometimes, people aren’t “good fits.”
The case involved a defendant that did not renew the contract of the plaintiff, a teacher, telling her that she and the defendant “were not a good fit for each other.”
The plaintiff subsequently sued the defendant. Among her claims, the plaintiff asserted that the termination was retaliation for the plaintiff’s earlier request for an accommodation for her disability.
To prevail on her retaliation claims, a plaintiff must offer sufficient direct and indirect evidence of retaliation or proceed under a burden-shifting method. Telling someone they aren’t a good fit is not tantamount to telling them, “Hey, you invalid! We’re firing you because you help to do your job” So, the court applied the “burden-shifting method.”
First, the plaintiff had to show that she requested an accommodation (she did). Then the employer had to articulate legitimate reasons to the court for firing her. Here, the defendant put forth evidence that it decided to terminate the plaintiff’s employment based on reports of threatening and unprofessional behavior. Finally, the burden shifted back to the plaintiff to show that the defendant’s reasons for terminating her were really pretextual. She insisted that the “conclusory statement that she was not a good fit . . . is itself compelling evidence of retaliatory animus.”
And the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. Sometimes, people just aren’t good fits. And ending the employment relationship isn’t necessarily retaliation.
Describing an employee as not a “good fit” is an assessment that employers make all the time. Maybe someone’s skills do not match up with the institution’s mission. Maybe someone’s work ethic falls short of expectations. Maybe someone is just not a good team player. Though there may be circumstances where evidence reveals that “good fit” is a subterfuge for discrimination or retaliation, it is also a perfectly innocuous comment that an organization’s collaborative goals would not be furthered, and in fact might be retarded, by a particular employee. Institutional success is often a collective enterprise toward which an employer has entirely reasonable expectations that each employee should contribute.
Here, the record revealed unrelieved personality conflicts, unprofessional favoritisms, unwarranted threats, and contempt for what the defendant sought to accomplish. Firing an employee for these problems is not discrimination or retaliation.
But why go to the extra steps and litigation expense of explaining a termination to a court or plaintiff’s lawyer at a deposition? So, please encourage your managers to document performance issues at work, seek advance approval (when appropriate) to terminate employees, and articulate at least one good reason to the employee during the difficult termination conversation. (Pro Tip: “It’s not working out” doesn’t count). Then, document the termination reason(s) in a termination letter.
Leave no doubt in the employee’s mind that the company had a legitimate reason to end their employment.