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Fair discipline process is key to avoiding lawsuits

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,HR Management,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training

Do you have an employee who grates on everyone’s nerves and makes unreasonable demands of subordinates? Are you afraid to discipline the employee because he or she belongs to a protected class (e.g., race, age, sex)?

Fear no more! As long as you use a fair process to correct the employee’s shortcomings, chances are he or she won’t win a lawsuit. Just make sure you document everything. You must be able to show that you treated others with similar management styles and problems the same way.

Go ahead and list the problems in a performance improvement plan. Be sure to include reasonable goals and an end date. Then, if the employee improves, provide reasonable opportunities for advancement. After all, that’s the whole reason for a performance improvement plan, isn’t it?

Recent case: Shonta Michael, who is black, received good reviews but had problems dealing with some of her subordinates. One complained to HR that Michael made him perform personal tasks, like getting her a drink of water and picking up lunch at local restaurants. Others said Michael often called them at home with work questions—sometimes as early as 5 am. Michael also had a habit of arriving late for meetings.

The fireworks started when a manager told Michael she didn’t appreciate her late arrival for a meeting. The two got into a shouting match. Both filed complaints with HR, which investigated and concluded Michael was at fault. HR placed her on a 90-day performance improvement plan.

Michael successfully completed the plan and accepted a transfer to another office. She was promoted shortly thereafter but still filed a race discrimination claim. The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed her case. The court reasoned that Michael couldn’t show others with similar problems weren’t told to improve. Plus, the later promotion dispelled any idea of retaliation. (Michael v. Caterpillar Financial Services, No. 06-5750, 6th Cir., 2007)

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