Employers don’t have to be perfect decision-makers—just honest ones. That means that disciplining or even firing someone because you believed the employee violated a rule is OK even if you turn out to be wrong about the violation.
Be prepared, though, to prove to a court that your belief was based on particular facts, not just guesses. If you had a reasonable basis for believing the employee broke a rule, you’re fine.
Recent case: Olin Clay, who is black, worked for UPS as a driver and got into a dispute over whether he would receive specialized training that would allow him to step into a higher-paying position. Clay said UPS denied him the training because of his race. He filed an EEOC complaint.
Shortly after, Clay went on medical leave. When he was ready to return to work, UPS asked for a doctor’s evaluation. Clay provided it. UPS said he’d have to get a more comprehensive one and sent him to its own doctors. That’s when the real trouble began.
UPS has a three-day no-show/no-call termination policy for employees cleared to return to work. UPS fired Clay, claiming he didn’t show up for work for three days after its doctor cleared him. In fact, Clay missed just two days simply because he didn’t check his voice mail for the doctor’s message in time to report.
Clay sued, alleging retaliation and said UPS used the no-show/no-call reason as pretext to fire him. Because he showed it was impossible for him to have violated the policy—given the dated medical release was signed just two days before he was fired—the court said UPS had to come up with proof its mistake was an “honest” one. It couldn’t do so, and Clay’s retaliation case will go to a jury. (Clay, et al., v. United Parcel Service, No. 05-4243, 6th Cir., 2007)
Final note: UPS easily could have avoided a lawsuit by double-checking the documents it relied on to fire Clay.