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Document rationale for all discipline to show it wasn’t a pretext for bias

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in Leaders & Managers,Management Training

If you carefully document disciplinary actions and punish all employees fairly, courts will usually uphold your decisions.

That’s because an employee who challenges the reason for her discharge has to show that the reason wasn’t legitimate—that, rather, the rationale was merely a pretext for some form of discrimination. And it takes more than just coincidence to do that.

Recent case: Phillis Dewitt worked as a nurse at a hospital. Her husband was ill with prostate cancer and underwent expensive and extensive medical treatment. Because the hospital was self-insured for the first $250,000 in medical costs incurred by employees or their covered family members, management knew how much the Dewitts had to pay for the treatment.

Dewitt was terminated because of alleged insubordination. She admitted that she did not get along with her supervisor, had philosophical differences about management style, wanted to get another job and once called her boss “rude and obnoxious” at work.

Dewitt sued, alleging she had been fired to prevent her husband from using her health benefits.

But she could offer no evidence that those expenses were connected in any way with the otherwise legitimate reason for her discharge—her insubordination. The fact that her employer knew about the health care costs wasn’t enough.

Otherwise anyone with high costs would be immune from discharge. The health expenses would in effect be a get-out-of-jail-free card, providing immunity from discipline. The court dismissed Dewitt’s lawsuit. (Dewitt v. Proctor Hospital, No. 09-2948, 7th Cir., 2010)

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