Tips for managers who want to avoid lawsuits

Dealing with performance problems with an employee is never an agreeable task, and it is easy to let emotions cloud your judgment. But here are some tips for making sure you cover all your bases.

Dealing with performance problems with an employee is never an agreeable task, and it is easy to let emotions cloud your judgment. But here are some tips for making sure you cover all your bases.


I read recently about a case in which an older gentleman was suing a company for age discrimination as a result of his having been fired. This particular man, an IT project manager, was the oldest employee in his department and reported to a supervisor 13 years younger than he.

The court case took two years to be decided but ended, ultimately, with the company being acquitted. The reason the lawsuit went in their favor? They had followed the rules in hiring personnel and had documented every part of the dissatisfaction they'd had with the employee once it became a problem. They'd retained copies of the iterations of his performance improvement plan, and made and recorded their considerable efforts to help the guy improve over time.

For something as important as a possible lawsuit involving personnel, managers cannot take the lazy route. A recent article in Workforce.com outlines some steps every manager should take upon hiring an employee. Here they are:

Set expectations

From day one, you need to clearly and repeatedly communicate the objective expectations of all positions. You can't expect employees to meet the responsibilities of their positions if at the time of hire they don't clearly understand their ongoing targets and have a defined set of boundaries in terms of reporting relationships and roles.

Deal with problems

Address performance problems as soon as they arise. "One of the biggest mistakes that companies make is to allow an employee who is not meeting expectations to continue down the path of mediocrity."

Instill solid policies and procedures

Beyond looking to other companies or industry associations for best practices, look to legal counsel for assurance that policies and procedures are uniform across all employee groups and that exposure to discrimination claims is minimized. The benefits derived from bringing in an attorney at this stage far outweigh the costs associated with fending off discrimination claims, even those that are frivolous.

Consult with legal counsel when trouble arises

Whether you're developing a performance improvement plan, reassigning roles and responsibilities, or simply addressing dissatisfaction, legal counsel can help manage risk from a more emotionally removed perspective. The best money spent is money that avoids the escalation of problems into litigation.

Here are some more tips, aside from Workforce.com's:

  • Give annual performance appraisals. Do these at least once a year. Use them to document performance deficiencies versus your expectations or the actual job requirements.
  • Retain a record of the disciplinary action. Have the employee sign some sort of document outlining the conversation about any kind of disciplinary action. The document should specifically state that the employee is not admitting fault, but has been informed that his job performance is not satisfactory and why. Outline specific improvements / changes required in order for him or her to keep this job, and give clear deadlines as to when these improvements / changes must be seen.
  • Give benchmarks. It may take some time for the employee to change every unsatisfactory behavior. Don't set one deadline for all problems to be remedied. Give interim dates by which some skills will need to be mastered.


Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.


I see this 'avoid lawsuits' focus at every turn. When did we cross a line making everything a 'suit-able' offense?

Photogenic Memory
Photogenic Memory

There's a lot of jobs out there. Yep, tons! Companies do need to protect themselves from the unproductive workers who maybe a risk too the company in some way down the line. The is logical and reasonable. However, this process can be abused or even fabricated by the untrustworthy conniving manager. So how do you protect yourself? Do the same as stated in the above article. However, heavily document yourself and your work habits/projects whatever. If you already have a hint things are going south or have the potential to go in a negative direction from a sucky employer that may hurt you; do it! For example, if they want to make sure their corporate goals are achieved and attempt to counsel you or some dipshit dialogue; prove the steps you did to improve and document them. Even if you weren't successful; it shows you tried. It may even lead to some further questioning of how much the company attempted went to help you. Or how about describing the work environment thoroughly? What if your intimidated by the boss or another employee and you talked to your superior about it? Document it. Document how they attempted or didn't to fix the problem. Basically cover your ass! The company doesn't care. They never do. Overall, I've never been in this situation taking an employer to court. I do; on a daily, have a work diary. I trust very few and my employer is not one of them! But; like so many others out there, I need to make those dollars! If anybody has any other ideas out there; please update! Thank you.


Unfortunately, my company doesn't do performance appraisals and therefore we are unable to adequately document the expectations and measurement of the employee's adherence to those expectations. We have a yearly career planning and development review, but it is explicitly supposed to not be a performance appraisal. Instead it is intended to be focused on what direction an employee wants his career to take and what kind of training, skills, or experience he needs to get there. I have long thought that not having a yearly performance appraisal was to my company's detriment in weeding out unproductive workers. As a result, it takes far longer to document any problem employees and thus they stay around a lot longer than necessary.

Editor's Picks