In our troubled economic times, many employers have focused on making their workforce leaner and more efficient.  This frequently involves raising performance standards for employees.  But it is important to do so in a thoughtful and legally defensible way.

An illustration of this point can be found in the case of Dupont v. Allina Health System, which involved a long-term employee with a number of physical impairments.  This employee had worked as an environmental services aide for a hospital for more than 30 years, cleaning patient discharge rooms and other common areas, and had been considered a valuable employee. 

In 2011, the hospital implemented new cleaning standards that required the patient discharge rooms to be cleaned in 30-45 minutes.  The stated reason for the new standards was to increase patient satisfaction by shortening wait times for available rooms, which certainly seems reasonable.  Because of her disabilities, however, the employee could not meet the new standards and she was suddenly found to be not so valuable – she was issued corrective action.  The employee requested several different accommodations: to be given more time, to have other workers help her (as they had in the past), and to be assigned to clean areas other than patient discharge rooms (which also had been done in the past).  All of them were refused, and she was ultimately terminated for failing to meet the new standards.

The court noted that there were concerns about the hospital’s implementation of the new standards.  The court questioned whether the new time limits for cleaning rooms were an essential function of the aide’s job, given that the aide had performed the same job without those time limits for 35(!) years.  In addition, she had been given her requested accommodations in the past.  These standards were also not “black and white” in that the time to clean a room varied based on a number of factors, such as the type of room and the equipment it contained.  The court further found significant the fact that the standards were unwritten.  Because of these concerns, the court declined to dismiss the aide’s claims, and the case will proceed to trial.

What this case illustrates for employers is the need to consider and implement carefully any new performance standards.  Although it is entirely reasonable and legitimate to impose new standards, these standards should be well-defined and communicated appropriately to employees.  It may be wise to put them in writing.  But most importantly, employers should consider whether the new standards are actually essential job functions in the case of employees with disabilities, who may not be able to meet those standards.  There may be situations where the standards must be waived as a reasonable accommodation, depending on the circumstances.