There’s a reason you have employee manuals and policies. They’re there to guard against unfair and possibly discriminatory practices. HR can and should serve as a check on overzealous supervisors who want to mete out discipline to those they don’t like while ignoring problems with those they favor.
Insist that no final termination or disciplinary actions go through without clear documentation that supervisors followed all the rules. That’s the best way to prevent hidden discrimination from turning into a losing lawsuit.
Recent case: Lynn Hankins, who is black, worked for Best Buy for many years, rising steadily within the organization. While assigned to a territory in Illinois, he had some difficulty with a subordinate. As Hankins later explained, the man was rude and insisted on conducting meetings in strip clubs and in bars where black patrons were rare.
Later, that subordinate became Hankins’ boss. The relationship quickly deteriorated and Hankins was terminated. The problem: Hankins allegedly violated company policy by authorizing discounts that went beyond the chain’s usual Black Friday sales.
However, when Hankins was fired, his supervisor failed to follow the rules set out in Best Buy’s employee handbook or company policies.
Hankins sued, alleging discrimination.
In court, Hankins showed that white employees who had been accused of similar misconduct were either not terminated or were afforded the hearing and appeal process outlined in company rules. The court said his case could go to trial. (Hankins v. Best Buy Stores, No. 10-CV-4508, ND IL, 2011)
Final note: HR should keep a record of all disciplinary actions and regularly review them for any problems. For example, if two employees break the same rule but are treated differently, make sure you can clearly explain why one offense was not like the other.