You’re probably aware that, generally, you should issue the same discipline to everyone who breaks the same rule. But that isn’t always the case.
As long as you can explain why one employee deserved harsher punishment—termination rather than suspension, for example—a judge probably won’t second-guess you. The trick is to document why one punishment was more appropriate than another.
Recent case: Peterjohn worked as a police officer at Bradley University. He was born in Korea, adopted by American parents as an infant and became a U.S. citizen at age 7.
Following a slip at work, he had shoulder surgery and was placed in a light-duty position. After beginning twice-a-week physical therapy sessions, Peterjohn’s supervisor allegedly began harassing him and giving him demeaning work. Peterjohn complained to HR.
Later, he would also claim he had to endure ethnically charged comments, including remarks about the shape of his eyes.
Then another officer told supervisors that he witnessed Peterjohn and another officer taking merchandise from a campus store. Among the allegedly stolen items were T-shirts. An investigation ensued. Peterjohn denied taking anything other than a shirt that he claimed was a freebie given out at special events. The officer with him immediately admitted taking a shirt. After continued questioning, Peterjohn finally admitted that he hadn’t been honest and may have helped himself to more than one shirt. He was terminated.
Peterjohn sued, alleging retaliation and race discrimination. He claimed he should have been suspended like the other officer. University officials explained they merely suspended the other officer because she immediately admitted her mistake and begged for another chance, while Peterjohn wasn’t as honest.
The court said that was enough of a difference to justify suspending one employee while terminating another. (Hoffman v. Bradley University, No. 11-1086, CD IL, 2012)
- How to Fire an Employee the Legal Way: 6 Termination Guidelines
- Insubordination: How to handle it legally
- Retaliation nation: Manage adverse actions to lessen retaliation
- Lawsuit-proof your firing decisions: Have those who hire or promote also do the firing
- Fair investigation all that's needed to support discharge