Is "Not Fitting in" Actually a Pretext for Discrimination?

New York employers often give vague reasons for firing an employee. A common one is that the employee simply “did not fit in” with the company or its culture. Sometimes such ambiguity is simply designed to avoid an uncomfortable conversation with an employee who is simply not performing well. There may be cases where “fitting in” is actually a veiled reference to a discriminatory motive that is forbidden under New York employment laws.

Employee's Perception Not Enough to Support Complaint

Of course, it is difficult for an employee to prove discrimination based solely on a manager's comments regarding “fitting in” absent some corroborating evidence of discriminatory intent. For example, in a 2014 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit here in New York held at trial court erred in awarding summary judgment to the defense in a “very close case” alleging race discrimination. The plaintiff alleged that he was denied a promotion for which he was fully qualified because of his race. Supervisors said they declined to promote the plaintiff because he “did not fit in” and that other employees would be a “better fit.”

Critically, another supervisor testified during a pre-trial deposition that he inferred the comments regarding fitting in “could have been about race.” Given that the plaintiff was otherwise qualified for the promotion he sought, the Second Circuit said the fitting-in statements did “raise a genuine dispute as to whether the proffered reasons” for denying his promotion “were pretextual,” i.e. a cover for illegal race discrimination.

More recently, a federal judge in Manhattan dismissed an employment discrimination lawsuit also predicated on supervisory statements regarding “fitting in.” In this case, the plaintiff, a Jamaican national, worked as a research technician in the defendant's laboratory. The plaintiff's employment was probationary. After three months, the defendant was free to terminate the plaintiff's employment, which it did.

Here, a supervisor told the plaintiff he “didn't fit in” and that other members of the research team did not trust him. The plaintiff subsequently filed an employment discrimination lawsuit, largely relying on this statement as proof of a “discriminatory motive” behind the decision not to renew his employment beyond the probationary period. Unfortunately, the district court did not see it that way.

The judge noted that unlike the Second Circuit case mentioned above, there was no independent corroboration of a possible discriminatory motive. Indeed, the plaintiff offered “nothing beyond his own perception of the remark to explain how it speaks to a discriminatory motive by” the supervisor. An “off-handed remark” without more is not enough to sustain a discrimination claim.

Get Help With Your New York Employment Discrimination Claim

Before pursuing any kind of employment discrimination case, it is important to gather as much evidence as possible. Other employees and even supervisors may offer testimony or other evidence that bolsters the credibility of a plaintiff's claim. After all, judges will not simply take the plaintiff's word for it that he or she was fired for illegal reasons.

If you need help investigating and building a discrimination case against an employer, an experienced New York employment attorney can help. Contact the Law Offices of Nisar Law Group, P.C. at (646) 760-6493 if you need to speak with a lawyer today about your workplace situation.