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Riffing on the Right Way to do Workforce Reductions

Done poorly, RIFs open employer to widespread claims of discrimination that can prove more difficult to defend than the savings the employer hoped to realize from the layoffs.

October 21, 2013
Related Topics: Layoffs, Wrongful Discharge, Staffing and the Law, Discrimination and EEOC Compliance, Policies and Procedures, Legal
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Anthony Rachells was a top performer at Cingular Wireless. As a National Retail Account Executive in Cingular’s Cleveland region, he received numerous sales awards, consistently exceeded company sales goals by the greatest margin of any of his co-workers, and, in 2003 earned the top performance review among his peers. Yet, when AT&T acquired Cingular in 2004, and eliminated five of the nine employees in Rachells’s position. Rachells received the lowest 2004 performance review score of any candidate, ranked seventh in the overall selection process, and was terminated.

Rachells—who was the only African-American National Retail Account Executive—sued, claiming that his manager (who other testified had a history of discriminating against minorities) included him in the workforce reduction because of his race.

Last week, in Rachells v. Cingular Wireless Employee Services [pdf], the 6th Circuit concluded that it should be up to a jury to determine whether the decision-making manager singled out Rachells because of his race.

Here, among the Cingular candidates, Rachells was the only person of color and the only individual discharged in the RIF. Given this small sample size of the Cingular candidates, however, this is not sufficient to conclude that Cingular’s actions were racially motivated…. The district court erred in dismissing two other crucial categories of evidence tending to show race-based discrimination: evidence of Rachells’ superior qualifications and evidence of a discriminatory atmosphere at Cingular….

Here are three factors to think about when using subjective criteria (such as rankings) when deciding on who to include in a RIF:

  1. Comparability. What do your workforce demographics look like before and after the RIF, company wide, department by department, and job function by job function? If it looks like your RIF affected women, minorities, or older workers more than their comparators, it will become harder to justify the legitimacy of the subjective criteria. In this case, Cingular’s RIF failed the smell test by including the only African-American account executive.

  2. Consistency. Do you always use subjective criteria as part of your decision-making? If not, it will look like you added a subjective component to this RIF for a reason (to single out someone or some group). If nothing else, you will have to explain why you deviated from the norm. In this case, it was not a stretch for the court to conclude that the manager rigged the ranking to single out Rachells.

  3. Honesty. Was everyone honest in their subjective evaluations? The quickest way to buy yourself a jury trial is for the plaintiff to uncover dishonesty or other shenanigans in the decision-making process. If you are going to have a subjective component to any RIF, make sure the evaluations pass muster. How do they compare to past performance reviews? Have the employees ever been counseled, disciplined, or put on a performance plan? Do the objective criteria (sales numbers, for example) contradict the subjective evaluation? In this case, Cingular’s RIF failed because the objective criteria (sales figures, awards, and prior performance reviews) did not match the subjective ranking prepared solely for purposes of the RIF.

RIFs, done correctly, provide employers wide protections from allegations of discrimination. Done poorly, however, RIFs open employer to widespread claims of discrimination that can prove more difficult to defend than the savings the employer hoped to realize from the layoffs.

Written by Jon Hyman, a partner in the Labor & Employment group of Kohrman Jackson & Krantz. For more information, contact Hyman at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com. You can also follow Hyman on Twitter at @jonhyman.

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