Employers that follow their own disciplinary process—even in cases involving difficult employees—benefit if those employees sue.
When courts see a reasonable disciplinary policy that is applied evenhandedly, they rarely second-guess an employer’s decision to fire an employee.
Recent case: To say that Kennedy Thorne, who is black, was a difficult employee is an understatement. Over his career with Jewel Food Stores, he incurred 52 disciplinary notices for lack of productivity, unsafe work and failure to follow policies and procedures.
Jewel adopted a new progressive disciplinary policy, which called for termination after the fifth incident in any one year. Thorne quickly burned through his allotment, earning an oral warning, written warning and suspensions. Then, after failing to clock out for lunch, the company terminated him.
Thorne sued, alleging that another employee who is white hadn’t been disciplined for failing to clock out. But it turned out that the white employee worked in a building without time clocks and, thus, couldn’t clock out for lunch.
The court dismissed Thorne’s case, reasoning that the company had a solid disciplinary policy that it administered in a fair and impartial manner. (Thorne v. Jewel Food Stores, No. 10-3011, 7th Cir., 2011)
Final note: You can’t prevent all lawsuits, but you can be prepared if you have good records. That will make it easier to convince a judge to toss out an otherwise meritless case. Employees tend to win big only when employers can’t justify their actions.