Some employers use performance evaluations as a tool to encourage and set goals for employees as opposed to rating their performance over the relevant period because they fear the demoralizing effect of a poor (or even satisfactory) evaluation. Goal setting is a positive method of keeping performance on track, but it cannot replace an honest evaluation. A Kansas district court reminded employers last week of the dangers in issuing a positive evaluation to an employee when in reality performance issues existed.
In Fuller v. Meredith Corporation, plaintiff, age 47, was a news anchor for a local TV station for 12 years when the general manager decided not to renew her contract. He cited to performance problems by her, both on and off the air, as the reason for the decision. Plaintiff sued the company claiming that she was fired because of her age and gender.
The court determined that plaintiff was entitled to a trial because a question of fact existed as to whether the company’s stated reason for discharge was a pretext. Generally, a plaintiff shows pretext by presenting evidence of weakness, implausibility, inconsistency, incoherency, or contradiction in the employer’s stated reasons for an adverse employment action, such that a reasonable jury could find the stated reasons to be unconvincing. Here, the court found that the plaintiff’s good performance evaluations, coupled with the company’s reliance on its subjective view of her on air performance as well as a company executive’s statements that younger news anchors had a more desirable or appealing look on air, could result in a jury finding that the company’s claims of performance deficiencies were unconvincing.
This case serves as a good reminder to employers that a performance evaluation that does not accurately reflect the employee’s work can hurt the employer far more than the employee who might be demoralized by receiving a negative evaluation. Evaluations that truly reflect the employee’s performance are essential and are, in fact, the place where deficiencies should be noted. Supervisors or managers who issue evaluations should be trained on not only the appropriate way to complete evaluation instruments, but also the potential liability of not doing so.