You just got notice that a charge of discrimination has been filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by a former employee who was recently discharged for poor performance.  You are scratching your head because, as the Chief Human Resources Officer, you’re very familiar with the facts surrounding this employee’s termination and you are not aware of any, I mean not any, information that would even hint at unlawful discrimination.  He was terminated for poor performance and a bad attitude-end of story. So how did the company end up with a charge of discrimination?

In my role as an attorney, I have defended numerous EEOC charges for various employers. Although discrimination certainly does exist in the workplace, evidence of unlawful discrimination is absent in many charges.  It is, of course, possible that there was indeed discrimination and that the HR Department was unaware of it.  Typically, however, when considering terminating an employee for poor performance or any other legitimate non-discriminatory reason, HR and management would be aware of (and consider) any facts that might be relevant to the proposed termination.

More likely, there really wasn’t ever any unlawful discrimination; rather, there was a strained relationship between the terminated employee and another employee or employees that was never resolved.  For instance, the terminated employee was part of a two-person team.  He and his former coworker had very different personalities.  His former coworker was an introvert who didn’t initiate conversation very often, kept her head down (even when provoked by him), did the job, and went home.  On the other hand, the terminated employee was an extrovert, talked to everyone (often too much-contributing to the poor performance), and took his teammate’s quiet nature as disrespectful.  He believed that she felt she was too good to socialize with him.

These feelings went on for four or five months. The manager tried to intervene because the conflict was causing problems in the division, to no avail. The relationship continued to deteriorate, impacting performance, and finally a decision was made to terminate the employee for poor performance and a toxic attitude toward his teammate, which he wasn’t shy about sharing with other employees.

He files an EEOC charge of discrimination based on sex and age.  65% of the employees in his former division are female and his manager was a female ten years younger than him.  From his perspective, of course he wasn’t really terminated due to poor performance and a bad attitude.  He was discriminated against because he was a man over 40.  Now the expensive legal team is called in to investigate, file a position statement in response to the charge, negotiate a settlement if there is one, or ultimately defend a lawsuit.

If more effective conflict management skills had been applied in this situation, there might never have been an EEOC charge and all the costs associated with it. Early conflict resolution is critical not only to avoiding unnecessary claims, but to creating a workplace where employees are provided with skills to handle conflict effectively and to stay focused on their strategic goals. Most conflicts can be resolved.