Employers may find it concerning when their employees with performance issues also complain of workplace discrimination. A recent decision out of the Eastern District of Virginia illustrates how progressive discipline, documentation of employee work performance problems, and investigation of employee workplace complaints can help protect employers in the long run. Gooding-Williams v. Fairfax County School Board, No. 1:18-cv-01177 (E.D. Va. 7/19/19).
Gooding-Williams began working as a Human Resource Specialist for the Fairfax County School Board (“School Board”) in 2004. Under her then-supervisor, Gooding-Williams’s performance was generally noted as “meeting expectations” with only a couple of specific areas for improvement cited. In 2014, the School Board’s HR department was restructured, and Gooding-Williams began working under a new supervisor, Sills. One goal of the restructuring was to enhance the efficiency of the HR department and the performance of HR employees.
Sills began to recognize problems with Gooding-Williams’s professionalism and work performance and decided to take action to correct them. The corrective actions began after Gooding-Williams missed multiple HR meetings — which were held to improve HR performance — and Sills issued her a counseling.
Then, after some of her job duties were redistributed, Gooding-Williams complained to the HR Department’s Superintendent that Sills had discriminated against her because of her race and national origin. The Superintendent met with Gooding-Williams to discuss her concerns.
From there, Gooding-Williams’s work performance continued to be problematic. Over the course of several months, she was unprofessional and combative with her supervisors and regularly unreachable and unproductive on her telework days. Several school principals complained about her professionalism, her expediency, and the quality of her advice. As a result, Sills tried numerous times to address the work performance problems informally, before deciding to place her on a performance improvement plan (“PIP”). When the problems continued, Sills extended the PIP. After the problems still did not resolve, Sills decided to prepare a letter of reprimand and schedule a disciplinary meeting.
Meanwhile, Gooding-Williams had filed another internal complaint accusing Sills of discrimination and retaliation, which the School Board investigated and found to be baseless. After learning of Sills’s disciplinary meeting to be held, she filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC.
The cycle of escalating work performance problems, reprimands by the School Board, and complaints of discrimination by Gooding-Williams continued for some time until the School Board decided to place her on paid administrative leave while it internally reviewed her work performance. The review consisted of interviews with several school principals and HR staff members and revealed that many people had difficulty working with Gooding-Williams. Ultimately, the School Board decided to terminate Gooding-Williams because of her unsatisfactory work performance, unprofessional conduct towards other employees, and continued inappropriate and uncooperative behavior.
Gooding-Williams sued, alleging hostile work environment and retaliation claims. In part, she alleged that the criticisms of her work performance, placement on a PIP, reassignment of job duties, and termination, among other things, occurred because she had filed complaints of discrimination against Sills.
The court granted summary judgment to the School Board on all of Gooding-Williams’s claims. As to the retaliation claim, the court found that the School Board’s legitimate and nonretaliatory reasons for terminating Gooding-Williams were justified by the “long-documented history of conduct and performance deficiencies identified by [her] supervisors, clients, and coworkers.” Moreover, this “evidence of a clear and long train of frustration and growing dissatisfaction” with her conduct, responsiveness, and performance was neither false nor evidence of pretext for retaliation.
As the Gooding-Williams case demonstrates, properly and truthfully documenting employee work performance problems can go a long way to protect employers who need to defend their employment decisions. Employers would be well-served to develop policies that help facilitate this process.