Today’s post is about another recent employment-law decision from the Third Circuit. For those of you who want the shortened version, feel free to skip to the end of the post for the valuable Lesson Learned.
The plaintiff-employee, Mary Burton, founded and ran two companies, which were sold to the defendant-employer, Teleflex. Following the sale, Burton became employed by Teleflex pursuant to a written employment agreement. Burton was 67 years old.
From the start, Burton did not get along with her new supervisor, Edward Boarini. Their relationship was already strained when Boarini told Burton that he wanted to meet with her to discuss her performance. At a trade show, Burton asked Boarini when he wanted to meet. When he couldn’t give her an immediate answer, Burton responded by asking whether he wanted her to resign. He said that he did not but she repeated the question several times.
By the end of the conversation, Boarini believed that Burton had resigned. Burton, on the other hand, felt that she’d been fired.
Following a previously scheduled vacation, Burton received a letter from Teleflex’s HR Department, “accept[ing] her resignation.” Despite being “in disbelief” about the letter, Burton did not call Teleflex or attempt to return to work. Instead, she called her lawyer, who attempted, unsuccessfully, to negotiate a separation agreement.
Burton filed suit, alleging that she had been fired because of her age in violation of the ADEA. Teleflex claimed that Burton had not been fired but had resigned and, therefore, Burton had not been subject to any adverse action. The trial court, the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, granted summary judgment to Teleflex, finding that Burton had resigned and that, even if she had not, there was no evidence that its letter was a mere pretext. The Third Circuit reversed, finding that there “clearly” was a dispute of material fact as to whether Burton resigned or was terminated.
Instead of discussing the intricacies of the Third Circuit’s holding (i.e., whether there is sufficient evidence that Burton resigned) I think there is a more immediate lesson to be learned from this case:
Being a manager is tough. Deal with it.
Or, to put it differently:
There are serious and costly consequences for employing managers who are conflict adverse.
I certainly understand Boarini’s desire to interpret Burton’s comments as a resignation. But she didn’t come right out and say it, she didn’t call later and confirm it, and she didn’t submit a resignation letter (even though she was required to do so pursuant to her employment contract). Just because you want to hear her say she’s quitting doesn’t mean that is what she actually said.
The right way to handle this would have been to meet with Burton and address the performance issues that she’d been having. Just pick a time, set the meeting, and deal with it. Don’t wait for her to come to you to schedule a time. And, when she does, don’t say you’re too busy or be reluctant to commit to a time.
And then, when you have the little spat and she says, “Do you want me resign? Is that what you want,” understand that the conversation is not over. Be the manager. Tell her that she can calm down and collect her thoughts and that you will discuss the situation on Monday morning, 10 a.m., in your office.
Don’t close your eyes and hope the whole mess just disappears. It won’t. Being a manager is no easy business. But you can handle it—that’s why they gave you the job. So toughen up and deal with it head on.