Here’s something to remember the next time you agonize over discharging an employee for breaking a rule: While you should treat all employees honestly, you don’t have to conduct a mini trial to determine “guilt.” It’s enough to believe you had a legitimate reason to fire the employee—even if it later turns out you were wrong.
Recent case: Chinnecole Lee, who is black, worked in loss prevention at a Kmart store. The company has a policy that prohibits, and employees know breaking the rule means possible termination. Loss-prevention personnel are also told they may not touch shoplifting suspects unless must they do so in self-defense.
Lee witnessed a white woman placing merchandise in her coat and confronted her and her friend. The woman emptied her pockets and said she didn’t want the merchandise. Then the woman’s friend began screaming at Lee, using racial slurs. Lee slapped the friend in the face and called the police.
Lee explained to her supervisor what had happened but never mentioned having felt threatened. Lee assumed that nothing more would come of the incident. But the HR office concluded that she had violated the no-violence rule and wasn’t otherwise justified in hitting the suspected shoplifter’s friend. Lee was fired.
She sued, alleging race discrimination. Lee argued that the HR office had been wrong and that she had slapped the friend only because she felt threatened. Under those circumstances, she argued, she didn’t violate either rule.
The court said what really happened didn’t matter as long as HR honestly believed that Lee broke one of the rules. It didn’t have to reconsider its decision after the fact when Lee provided additional information. (Lee v. K-Mart Corporation, No. 10-3892, DC MN, 2011)
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