October 13, 2017 by Tom D’Agostino
Let’s face it: Imposing discipline isn’t easy.
But for supervisors, it’s sometimes a necessary part of the job. This case addresses a key
question about what happens next.
That is, how should supervisors respond when an employee balks at the discipline?
Here, the employee was demoted. He then became antagonistic toward his co-workers.
His supervisor put him on a performance improvement plan (PIP). But his attitude worsened, and she fired him.
The employee is Muslim and from Egypt. After he was fired, he sued the company for discrimination.
A federal appeals court rejected the claim.
It said that no reasonable jury could find he was fired for unlawful reasons.
Supervisor Had Doubts
Illinois Tool Works (ITW) hired Hisham Abdel-Ghaffar as a senior researcher in early February 2011.
Abdel-Ghaffar oversaw the design of a wireless welding network for an ITW client.
By June 2011, his supervisor started to doubt his performance.
She first noticed a problem when contrary to her instructions, he failed to include the pros and cons of different wireless networks in a presentation to a client.
After the client complained, the supervisor demoted Abdel-Ghaffar and replaced him with a new team leader.
She said that after he was demoted, he became antagonistic toward his team members and repeatedly questioned the new team leader’s ideas. He also argued over minor issues without backing up his assertions.
The supervisor said this caused work delays and led her to question his technical competence and attitude.
Problems Worsened During PIP
On August 8, 2011, the supervisor placed Abdel-Ghaffar on a PIP.
The PIP set a target date of September 30 for him to become technically competent, develop time-management skills and stop being “stubborn and argumentative.”
The supervisor updated the PIP on August 10 and again on August 23 – the day before Abdel-Ghaffar began a 10-day vacation.
In the updates, she noted that instead of improving, he’d become more insubordinate and argumentative and was seen sleeping at work.
The supervisor fired Abdel-Ghaffar on September 16, 2011– three days he after returned from vacation and two weeks before the PIP’s target date of September 30.
Abdel-Ghaffar later sued ITW for national origin and religious discrimination in violation of Title VII.
A magistrate judge granted pretrial judgment to ITW. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld the judgment.
Bias Claim Was Based on Conjecture
According to Abdel-Ghaffar, the supervisor held a negative view of Egyptian Muslims, which he claimed came from media reports about the uprising in Egypt in early 2011.
He based his argument on a comment the supervisor made right after he was placed on the PIP.
He said he’d told co-workers that he was going to fast for Ramadan. He then joined them at a restaurant after for an event after work.
He claimed when he arrived, his supervisor asked, “Why are you here? Aren’t you supposed to be fasting?”
The Seventh Circuit noted that the remark may have been inappropriate. But it was too ambiguous for a jury to infer she harbored any unlawful bias against Abdel-Ghaffar.
Abdel-Ghaffar also thought the supervisor seemed uncomfortable when he discussed events in Egypt with a client.
In addition, he believed she got angry when he told her that he was going on a pilgrimage to Mecca for his vacation.
The court said Abdel-Ghaffar’s beliefs about the supervisor’s reactions were just conjecture and couldn’t be used to show she had a negative attitude toward Egyptians or Muslims.
Didn’t Violate Procedure
Besides her allegedly biased reactions, Abdel-Ghaffar also argued that the supervisor didn’t follow ITW’s procedures regarding the PIP.
He claimed that she used it instead as a way to get him fired and that this was evidence of pretext.
The Seventh Circuit rejected this argument as well.
It said Abdel-Ghaffar failed to show that the supervisor’s handling of the PIP – including firing him before its target date – violated any mandatory procedures.
Also, emails the supervisor sent the new team leader – who’d complained several times about Abdel-Ghaffar’s behavior – showed that she wanted to speed up the process because she was concerned about Abdel-Ghaffar’s incompetence and “lack of understanding of basic engineering principles” – and not for any prohibited reason.
Additionally, in the August 23 update, the supervisor described the disrespectful emails Abdel-Ghaffar sent her, his missed deadlines and his failure to keep regular hours – after she put him on the PIP – and these were all legitimate reasons for firing him.
Abdel-Ghaffar v. Illinois Tool Works, Inc., No. 16-4039, 2017 WL 3867823 (7th Cir. 9/5/17).