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OK to treat similar rule violations differently–as long as you document your rationale

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Firing,Human Resources

Some managers think they have to punish the same rule violation exactly the same way for all employees. But the truth is that no two cases are exactly alike. Those differences can justify punishing one employee more severely than another.

The key: You must be prepared to justify why you treated the cases differently—and document your decision-making process.

Recent case: Melissa Hill worked for the Transportation Safety Admin­istration (TSA) at the George H.W. Bush International Airport in Hou­ston. She was fired when she was caught sleeping when she was supposed to be guarding the employee entrance.

Hill sued, alleging that, as a white woman, she had been punished more harshly than two black men she said had also been caught sleeping. They only received three-day suspensions.

The TSA explained that the two men admitted they dozed off and apologized, while Hill insisted that the two co-workers who saw her sleeping were lying and claimed she was just closing her eyes.

The court dismissed her case, rea­son­ing that the employer had explained why it felt the men deserved a second chance. (Hill v. Napolitano, No. 10-3147, SD TX, 2011)

Final note: Remember, courts don’t want to judge the wisdom of employers’ decisions. They just want to make sure that an employer’s explanation isn’t an attempt to cover up some form of discrimination.

Advice: Carefully document your disciplinary actions at the time you make them. Chances are a court won’t second-guess your decisions.

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