Key Point 8-25. Employers often evaluate some or all of their employees on a periodic basis. Such evaluations can help employees be more productive, but they also can be used as evidence of discrimination if an employee who is a member of a protected class under a state or federal employment law is terminated despite average or above-average evaluations.
Many churches perform periodic evaluations of their employees. In many cases, supervisors give inflated evaluations in order to avoid conflict. This common practice can expose a church to an increased risk of liability for employees who are protected by a state or federal employment discrimination law. To illustrate, let’s say that a church decides to fire a 62-year-old custodian. The custodian has worked for the church for 15 years, and throughout this entire time her work has been inefficient and of poor quality. However, her supervisor has always given her above average scores on her annual employee evaluations. Eventually, the church board decides that the custodian must be terminated. Following her termination, the employee sues the church for discriminating against her on account of age in violation of a state age discrimination law. The church attempts to prove that it terminated the custodian due to her poor quality work, but a court rejects this defense on the basis of the annual performance reviews that consistently and without exception portrayed the custodian as an “above average” worker. These evaluations convinced the court that the real reason for the custodian’s termination was her age.
How can a church avoid such a scenario? By insisting that all employee evaluations be objective assessments of clearly defined goals or standards. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done.
Tip. If your church performs employee evaluations, and all employees score above average, this is a good sign that supervisors are not providing objective and accurate assessments. This may expose the church to an increased risk of liability if it is sued for violating a state or federal employment discrimination law.
Tip. Does your church evaluate employees? If so, be sure the evaluations are objective. In addition, be aware that positive evaluations may be used against you if you dismiss an employee for violating the church’s moral teachings, and one or more positive evaluations were issued after church leaders became aware of the employee’s violation of the church’s moral teachings.
- A federal appeals court ruled that a church school may have violated a federal ban on pregnancy discrimination by terminating a female teacher who was pregnant on the day she was married. While the school insisted that its decision was based solely on its moral teachings, the court was not persuaded. It relied in part on a “glowing” teacher performance evaluation the teacher had received two months after the school concluded that she had engaged in premarital sex. In addition to noting her “successful” performance in almost all of 15 objective criteria, the school’s principal praised her for “adjusting very well” to the “busy and changing year in regard to her classroom reassignment and personal life.” The court concluded that the very positive employee evaluation the teacher received prior to her termination was evidence that the school had not terminated her on the basis of her violation of its moral teachings. After all, if the school had such standards, and they were as important as church officials insisted, then how could someone who so blatantly violated them receive an exemplary performance evaluation?203 Kline v. Catholic Diocese, 206 F.3d 651 (6th Cir. 2000).
- A federal court ruled that a 59-year-old principal could sue his employing church-affiliated school for age discrimination when his one-year employment contract was not renewed. The court concluded that a lengthy employment relationship (in this case, seven years) without any negative employee evaluations casts serious doubt on an employer’s allegedly nondiscriminatory basis for an adverse employment action regarding that employee. The importance of this point cannot be overstated. Churches that perform employee evaluations should recognize that a series of positive evaluations could place the church in a weak position in the event it dismisses or disciplines the employee and is hit with a discrimination claim.204 Shook v. St. Bede School, 74 F.Supp.2d 1172 (M.D. Ala. 1999).
- A federal court in Puerto Rico ruled that a church agency did not commit age discrimination by terminating a 48-year-old employee whose performance evaluations consistently rated his work as “poor” and whose position was eliminated when his department was relocated.205 Soto v. Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 73 F.Supp.2d 116 (D. Puerto Rico 1999).