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When employees foul up, feel free to tailor your response to fit the circumstances

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Employees break rules from time to time. They make mistakes occasionally. When those things happen, you have to respond.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking you must discipline or correct every employee the same way all the time. Management needs the flexibility to tailor solutions to particular problems, because every situation is different.

Fortunately, courts usually allow employers leeway—as long as employers can justify why they responded differently in different situations. For example, if you require an employee who made a mistake to retrain under supervision, but allow another to regain her edge through self-study, that doesn’t necessarily mean you are discriminating against one and favoring the other. As long as the discipline or training is within a relatively narrow range, courts won’t disturb your discretion.

Judges generally let employers manage their workforces. They’re not interested in micromanaging from the bench.

Recent case: Geraldine Lauture, who is black and was born in Haiti, worked the evening shift as a medical laboratory technician in a hospital for a year and a half. On the evening shift, she did not have any direct supervision.

That changed when she asked to transfer to the day shift so she could spend more time with her children. During the day, two white, U.S.-born technicians supervised Lauture.

Almost immediately, Lauture began having interpersonal and performance-related problems. She was warned that she needed to get along better with her co-workers. Then her supervisors told her she had made eight clinical errors during her first three weeks on the day shift.

They told Lauture she had to be retrained by an experienced technician. Before that training took place, she was again counseled and suspended for three days. According to the report, Lauture showed a “fundamental lack of knowledge.”

Lauture returned from the suspension and underwent two weeks of training. The technician who worked with her said she was trying to improve, but needed to take her duties “seriously." The trainer said Lauture worked very slowly and was unable to “perform a couple of tasks at the same time.”

Lauture complained about discrimination. Then she quit and sued, alleging that she had been treated more harshly than others outside her protected classification who had made similar mistakes.

After examining the disciplinary records of other technicians, the court disagreed. In fact, two of the technicians on the list who had made lab mistakes had been fired. Since Lauture had been warned, retrained and suspended for a short time, that placed her squarely in the range of punishment the hospital used for technicians who made mistakes. The court tossed out her case. (Lauture v. Saint Agnes Hospital, No. 10-1135, 4th Cir., 2011)

Final note: The two technicians who were terminated for lab errors lost their jobs after Lauture quit. She argued that they should not have been considered at all because their more severe punishment came later. But the court was not persuaded that the hospital punished the two techs more harshly in order to make it look like Lauture’s punishment (suspension, warning and training) was mild in comparison to potential discharge.

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