Friday, February 10, 2012

Suspended for Poor Performance or Race Bias?

A Maryland hospital worker got a job working the night shift in a medical laboratory. There, she was unsupervised, but she later sought a day-shift job. It was granted, but supervisors became involved with her work. Her first problem was an abrasive relationship with a co-worker, and her behavior drew her bosses’ criticism. But her lab errors were the second problem, and that was worse.

What happened. “Larson,” a black woman born in Haiti, joined St. Agnes Hospital in 2004 and was moved to a day shift in 2006. She has an associate’s degree in medical laboratory technology and certificates in three related fields. Soon after her shift change, supervisors began chastising her for fighting with a co-worker, saying the disputes were disturbing the entire lab. The relationship continued to be troublesome. 

But when Larson’s work was reviewed, supervisors documented eight errors between January 2 and January 23. They suspended her for 3 days and required that she be retrained for 2 weeks. The trainer’s report said Larson had trouble concentrating but noted she could work adequately if she paid careful attention. But then the co-worker complained again about her and a large meeting was convened with Larson. Perhaps because all the attendees except her were white and U.S.-born, Larson wouldn’t participate. She left the meeting in tears and resigned the next day. 

She then sued for race and national-origin discrimination. A federal district court judge reviewed St. Agnes’s documentation of her performance problems and ruled in the hospital’s favor. Larson appealed to the 4th Circuit, which covers Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia.

What the court said. Judges noted that in court, Larson either didn’t remember or denied her lab mistakes. And supervisors testified that her main problem was failure to take responsibility for her work. Before she resigned, Larson complained to the hospital’s diversity officer, also a black woman. But the officer could find no evidence of race bias, only that Larson was being disciplined for work mistakes. 

Larson argued that she was disciplined more harshly than white, U.S.-born workers who made lab mistakes. But appellate judges found that two white, U.S.-born employees had been fired for similar mistakes. Further, they noted, employers cannot be forced to discipline all employees the same way: There are too many variables.

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