Treating a disabled employee even a little differently than others can spell big trouble. That even applies to seemingly minor differences such as telling one employee in advance about an automatic termination policy, but not informing a disabled employee about the rule.
Recent case: Mohammad was a temporary IT employee, paid by a temp agency, but working directly for Hewlett-Packard (HP), one of the agency’s clients.
HP had a standard policy that only allowed workers to remain on temporary status for two years.
Beyond that deadline, temp employees either had to be hired as regular employees or had to wait 100 days before another assignment could be approved.
During his second year at HP, Mohammad injured his shoulder and had to take approved medical leave. Shortly before his scheduled return, he was informed that his services were no longer needed, and that the two-year rule applied. He had never heard of the policy.
Mohammad sued, alleging disability discrimination. He pointed out that another employee who was not disabled had been warned about the rule much earlier.
The court ruled Mohammad’s lawsuit should continue, reasoning that by informing one employee of the rule but leaving Mohammad in the dark, the temp agency treated the two differently. A jury will decide whether Mohammad was actually terminated because of his physical problems. (Hajianpour v. Synova, No. 12-1765, CD CA, 2012)
Final note: Include important policies like this one in your handbook. Discuss them during new-employee orientation. Get an acknowledgment that new employees have read and understand the rule. Remind them at regular intervals, especially as critical deadlines approach.
- How to Fire an Employee the Legal Way: 6 Termination Guidelines
- Track whom you discipline to avoid litigation
- Courts: Don't make us second-guess your decisions
- Take every suit seriously--even those in which employee is acting as her own lawyer
- Employee handbooks: Craft with care to secure 'at-will' policy