You can never predict which employee will sue and over what alleged wrong. That’s why the best approach is to focus on treating every employee fairly and consistently, applying your rules even-handedly.
That’s your best guarantee that a frivolous or false discrimination claim will be quickly dismissed before it ever goes to a jury. It’s not hard to do—if you document all discipline, investigate every complaint and generally stay on top of HR issues as they happen.
Recent case: David, who is white, was promoted to chief of the Greensboro Police Department. The two previous chiefs are black.
At the time, David was told to deal with pressing issues like discipline standards, department culture and integrity. David activated the Special Intelligence Division (SID) to conduct internal investigations of officers believed to be engaged in misconduct.
When a black officer’s name and telephone number were allegedly found in a drug dealer’s possession, SID began an investigation, placing a tracking device on the officer’s car. The officer found it and claimed it was proof that black officers were being singled out for investigation because of their race. The officer went on paid leave pending an investigation into his allegations.
David then held a press conference announcing that the department was in the midst of several internal investigations. A reporter asked specifically about the black officer and David told him, “You connect the dots.”
The newspaper later reported that black officers claimed that David kept a “black book” of officer photos and that those appearing in the book were singled out for investigation. David denied such a book existed. Later, however, a photo array including many black officers was found in the trunk of a police vehicle—allegedly placed there after being used in a rapist identification lineup.
Around the same time, many officers and members of the community began complaining about David’s. He was eventually given the option: resign or be fired. He chose to resign.
After a black officer was promoted to chief, David sued, alleging reverse discrimination.
The court tossed out the case. It reasoned that the police department had legitimate reasons to terminate David, including his press comments, the apparent hidden photo array and the outcome of the investigation against the black officer (which cleared the officer of wrongdoing even before David made the public comment). The fact that a black candidate replaced David wasn’t enough to show the city’s stated discipline reasons were a pretext for reverse discrimination. (Wray v. City of Greensboro, et al., No. 1:09-CV-00095, MD NC, 2013)
Final note: Few applicants, employees or former employees win lawsuits against employers that treat everyone fairly. But ensuring fairness requires some work upfront. Clear policies, consistently applied, are key.
Don’t neglect your handbook. Take time to make it readable. Make sure everyone has a copy and a chance to ask questions. Quickly investigate all complaints. Check discipline records for any potentially discriminatory patterns such as stricter punishment for some employees and leniency for others who break the same rules.
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