The words “Hey, that’s not fair!” have launched thousands of lawsuits.
While employees who break rules usually expect to be punished, they also expect to be treated fairly.
That’s why it’s important for managers and HR to strive for consistency in all discipline. Never punish one employee more harshly than someone else who committed the same infraction.
If maltreated employees belong to a protected class, inequitable discipline will give them a good head start toward a successful lawsuit.
Recent case: Sharon Mercer, a police officer with the North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles, left her pistol in the restroom at work. She returned to retrieve it. By then, someone had already found it and turned it in.
Mercer was originally fired for failing to secure her weapon, but that punishment was reduced to a short suspension. Then she discovered that a male colleague’s gun had been stolen (and traded for drugs) after he failed to secure it. He wasn’t suspended.
She sued, alleging sex and race discrimination.
The court said her case should go forward, based on the fact that she was punished more harshly by the same supervisor for the same offense. (Mercer v. North Carolina DOT, No. 5:09-CV-379, ED NC, 2011)
Final note: Remember that details do give you disciplinary wiggle room.
For example, you can punish someone with a long disciplinary history more severely than other employees with clean records. Plus, you can use differing details about particular rules violations to justify punishment.