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Not all offenses are equal–make the punishment fit the ‘crime’

by on
in Employment Law,Firing,Human Resources

When disciplining conduct that violates company policies, remember that you have leeway to come up with appropriate punishment based on the specifics of each incident.

Just make sure you document the conduct, what rules it violated and why each employee deserved the punishment he or she received. The key is being able to explain to a judge why you treated each employee the way you did.

Recent case: Margaret Burnett, who is black, worked as an administrative aide for a health care facility. At one point, Burnett told HR that the food pantry director was inappropriately using a corporate gas credit card.

HR investigated, and the director admitted the allegations. HR then suspended her for one week.

Three months later, Burnett was terminated for helping a client fill out a Social Security disability form and preparing another client’s tax return. Those weren’t part of Burnett’s duties and could have created liability for the employer.

Burnett sued, alleging race discrimination and arguing that she had been unfairly terminated for helping clients with forms, while the pantry director was merely suspended for misusing the credit card.

The court said it was clear the offenses were not equal—and that Burnett’s behavior exposed the employer to liability. On the other hand, the pantry director’s actions weren’t as serious in the company’s opinion. Because it was able to justify the different punishments, the court said its discipline was legitimate. (Burnett v. Trinity Institution, No. 1:10-CV-681, ND NY, 2011)

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