C. Ragland Has Not Refuted Defendants' Two Performance-Related Concerns
1. Complaints About Ragland's Phone Demeanor Stand Unrebutted
One of the grounds on which defendants base Ragland's termination is her poor performance with respect to customer calls. The parties dispute whether Ragland was told up front that, as a customer service representative, she would have to answer the phones, but there is no question that Ragland did, eventually, begin taking calls. Defendants present specific evidence that the results were less than satisfactory. Terrence Dane, an account manager at Rock-Tenn, submitted an affidavit testifying that numerous customers complained to him about Ragland's telephone manners. Dick Korff, the office manager, stated in his affidavit that Ragland consistently confused callers' names. On one occasion in particular, Ragland mispronounced the name of a doctor who was caring for Korff's wife in the hospital. Although neither Korff nor Dane talked to Ragland about these issues, they relayed their concerns to D'Andrea.
Ragland rejoins by generally denying that her telephone skills were deficient. She admits to mispronouncing the name of the doctor treating Korff's wife, but attempts to downplay the significance of this event by charging that the name was so difficult that Korff himself could not have pronounced it correctly. Her response to Dane's allegations of customer complaints is limited to the assertion that, in the one month her employment overlapped Dane's, he could not have acquired enough customers to complain about her. Furthermore, she claims that any complaints about her competence in taking calls should have been brought to her attention; because they were not, she concludes, no one must have complained.
We find that Ragland's assertions sorely lack the detail and probativeness necessary to call into question the defendants' beliefs about her phone skills. First, she has presented no evidence to refute the factual bases for defendants' negative performance assessment. Second, she offers nothing more than her own, self-serving testimony that her performance was generally satisfactory, which, as a matter of law, is insufficient to show pretext. Finally, she admits to at least one instance of less-than optimal performance, bolstering the defendants' belief that she had trouble taking calls correctly.
We first observe that the facts underlying Rock-Tenn's negative assessment of Ragland's phone skills remain intact. For instance, Ragland has presented no proof refuting the fact that Dane's customers called in to complain about her. See Gadsby v. Norwalk Furniture Corp., 71 F.3d 1324, 1337-38 (7th Cir. 1995) (Flaum, J., concurring) (to show pretext, plaintiff must specifically rebut factual basis for testimony that customers complained about him). She simply asserts that Dane could not possibly have built, in one month, a broad enough base of customers who could have complained. But absent any evidence documenting that Dane had only a few customers during Ragland's tenure, and without knowing whether Dane came to Rock-Tenn with an established customer base, we have no basis for questioning Dane's belief in his testimony. Ragland's case suffers from the absence of positive customer, supervisor, or co-worker appraisals of her phone proficiency. See Dale v. Chicago Tribune Co., 797 F.2d 458, 464 (7th Cir. 1986) (finding no evidence of pretext without positive evaluations from personnel file or independent third-party testimonials of adequate performance). Her allegations that a senior salesman orally rated her overall performance as "great," and that a representative of a customer with whom she had frequent contact said she was doing a "good job" lack the specificity needed to challenge the genuineness of Rock-Tenn's belief that Ragland's phone skills were wanting. See Dey, 28 F.3d at 1460 ("Our cases . . . give little weight to statements by supervisors or co-workers that generally corroborate a plaintiff's own perception of satisfactory job performance."). This Court cannot rely on Ragland's mere word to support these generalized comments, which, even if made, cannot cast doubt on Rock-Tenn's belief that a particular deficiency warranted termination. Id.
Ultimately, Ragland is left with her own self-serving testimony professing adeptness at answering the phones, save a concession that she mispronounced a caller's name on one occasion. She relies exclusively on her own affidavit and deposition testimony, pointing to nothing other than her self-perception that she was performing adequately in this area. But the Seventh Circuit has reiterated repeatedly that the way in which a plaintiff perceives herself is irrelevant; rather, it is the employer's perception that matters. Karazanos v. Navistar Int'l Transp. Corp., 948 F.2d 332, 337 (7th Cir. 1991); Dale, 797 F.2d at 464-65 (7th Cir. 1986); see Schultz v. General Elec. Capital Corp., 37 F.3d 329, 334 (7th Cir. 1994) ("An employee's 'own self-serving remarks standing alone are insufficient to raise doubt as to the credence of the employer's explanation for termination.'") (citations omitted); see Aungst v. Westinghouse Elec. Corp., 937 F.2d 1216, 1223 (7th Cir. 1991) ("[A] plaintiff's self-serving testimony regarding his own ability is insufficient to contradict an employer's negative assessment of that ability.") (internal quotations and citations omitted). Simply telling the Court that she was performing competently in taking phone calls, without offering specific facts to back up that statement, or to rebut Rock-Tenn's contrary judgment, will not clear the pretext hurdle. See Dale, 797 F.2d at 464-65 ("[The plaintiff] must do more than challenge the judgment of his superiors through his own, self-interested assertions.").
Moreover, Ragland admits to at least one instance of poor performance (although she does not characterize it as such) -- mispronouncing the name of one of Korff's callers. Acknowledging this episode dooms her ability to show that D'Andrea and Rock- Tenn officials manufactured her deficient phone skills. Her attempts to excuse and downplay the situation simply do not impugn the defendants' belief that it was significant enough to justify termination. See Sample v. Aldi, Inc., 61 F.3d 544, 549 (7th Cir. 1995) ("Although Sample believes that the incident was insignificant, to survive summary judgment he must call into question the honesty of [his employer's] belief that it was significant."). Regardless of whether this Court would think the episode a sufficient reason for termination, we are not to judge the wisdom of defendants' business decisions, "no matter how medieval the firm's practices, no matter how high-handed its decisional process, no matter how mistaken the firm's managers." Aungst, 937 F.2d at 1220 (internal quotations and citations omitted). Furthermore, Ragland presents no evidence that Rock-Tenn did not place a premium on its customer service representatives' phone manners and efficiency. See Schultz, 37 F.3d at 334 (suggesting that plaintiff could meet pretext burden by showing employer based firing on irrelevant performance criterion). Although Ragland claims that she was never informed that answering phones was a job requirement, it is undisputed that all the other customer service employees answered phones, that Ragland had answered phones as a sales service secretary in Rock-Tenn's Hillside office, and that Ragland did eventually start taking customer calls. Even assuming Ragland was unaware at the time of her interview that customer service would entail answering phones, Ragland has not shown that Rock-Tenn did not genuinely expect that, when she actually took a call, her conduct was to be beyond reproach. See Timm, 32 F.3d at 275 ("If an employer genuinely expects a competent employee to be better than competent and fires him for not excelling, the employer's conduct is, for purposes of the federal employment discrimination law, adequately explained.").
Ragland's protestations that no one complained to her about phone manners are beside the point. She points to no Rock-Tenn policy requiring progressive discipline or even notice before termination. And Ragland presents no legal authority standing for the proposition that an employer must give an employee notice of performance deficiencies before taking corrective action, absent contractual provisions to the contrary. If anything, the authority in our Circuit indicates an unwillingness to impose a notice prerequisite to termination. Makely v. Marketing Alternatives, Inc., 1995 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1200, 1995 WL 42358 (N.D. Ill. 1995); see also Denisi, 99 F.3d at 865 ("Mr. Denisi's deposition testimony, in which he claimed that his job performance was adequate and that he was not warned of persistent performance problems, does not constitute affirmative evidence that can defeat a summary judgment motion."); Rand v. CF Indus., Inc., 42 F.3d 1139, 1145 (7th Cir. 1994) (employee could not rely on employer's failure to inform him of poor performance before discharge where employer had no policy obligating it to do so).
In short, Ragland has been unable either to show that D'Andrea and Rock-Tenn management lied about the importance of good phone skills, or to refute defendants' belief that her phone performance left something to be desired. In her brief, Ragland makes much of the fact that defendants present no documentary evidence of her failings, and contends that the Court is left with a "swearing contest," to be resolved by a jury. This argument has no merit. Ragland is the party with the burden of demonstrating pretext and, ultimately, of proving discrimination. It is not incumbent on the defendants to establish the truth of their position or prove the absence of discrimination. Credibility does not enter the picture until Ragland presents evidence from which a jury could reasonably infer that Rock-Tenn made up its reasons for firing her. Denisi, 99 F.3d at 866 n.7 ("An 'ADEA case turns upon the credibility of witnesses only when the employee offers specific evidence from which the finder of fact may reasonably infer that the employer's proffered reasons for the adverse job actions did not represent the truth.'") (quoting Weisbrot v. Medical College of Wisconsin, 79 F.3d 677, 682 (1996)). Because she has failed to set forth such evidence on this issue, a jury has no competing facts from which to choose.
In this respect, Ragland bears a striking resemblance to the plaintiff in Rand v. CF Industries, Inc., 42 F.3d 1139 (7th Cir. 1994). Mr. Rand was hired as CFI's Assistant General Counsel at age 47. Although his first year went smoothly, he soon began experiencing rifts with company executives. Eventually, a number of CFI officers told Rand's supervisor that they were dissatisfied with Rand. They found him difficult to work with, thought he wasted their time, and ultimately quit seeking his counsel. Without giving Rand a chance to remedy these problems, Rand's supervisor fired him. Rand then sued CFI for age discrimination, claiming, inter alia, that his fine performance record belied the executives' negative assessments. Id. at 1145. He denied that CFI executives had stopped asking him for advice, or that he had offended them in any way. Id. The court granted summary judgment based on Rand's inability to show pretext, holding that "Rand cannot avoid summary judgment merely by asserting that CFI's executives are lying." Id. at 1146. Instead, Rand had to "produce specific facts that cast doubt upon CFI's stated reasons for its action or raise significant issues of credibility." Id. Although Rand offered his own testimony that CFI management was not to be believed, the court held that
Rand simply has not produced evidence from which a jury could reasonably infer that CFI's stated reasons for his discharge are unworthy of credence. His case rests almost exclusively on his uncorroborated assertion that no less than eight CFI executives are lying in an effort to hide CFI's age discrimination. Rand has failed to produce evidence which would render an inference of age discrimination reasonable in light of competing inferences.