You probably have some general rules about what employees are and are not allowed to do. If you’re smart, your rules are flexible enough for you to tailor punishment that fits the crime.
Faced with such inherent ambiguity, be sure to document the specifics of all discipline, so you can explain why employees who broke the same rule might have been punished differently. That way, you’ll be able to show, for example, why one employee was fired and another merely reprimanded.
Recent case: Byron and Cristin, who are both white, worked for the Dallas County school system until they were fired by their black supervisor for lax oversight during student standardized testing, which is governed by strict rules on how test materials are to be distributed.
They sued, alleging that several other employees who also gave the tests but who happened to be black weren’t fired for failing to follow the rules.
The court tossed the case when Byron and Cristin couldn’t show that the circumstances were the same. The school district had detailed records explaining the discipline. (Bollinger, et al., v. Dallas County, No. 3:10-CV-2441, SD TX, 2012)
Final note: Contemporaneously document all discipline. Don’t count on being able to remember specifics later. Especially if you have more than a handful of employees, it will be difficult for you to later recall details that matter.
Also bear in mind that you can punish second or third violations more severely than initial infractions.