When you are investigating employee wrongdoing and deciding on discipline, you don’t have to get everything exactly right—as long as you act in good faith and aren’t trying to set up someone or use the disciplinary process as a pretext for discrimination.
Courts don’t want to replace HR departments. They’re only interested in punishing real discrimination.
Recent case: Berenice, who is black, worked as a nurse in a state hospital for the mentally ill. While trying to manage a 19-year-old psychiatric patient, she got into what she described as a shoving match. Berenice said she had to protect herself from being pushed to the ground and put her arms up in defense. But it was the patient who ended up falling down.
A security guard heard the commotion and looked at his monitoring camera. He later told an HR investigator that, from his angle, it looked as if Berenice had knocked over the patient. After hearing everyone’s version of events—including the patient, Berenice and the security guard—HR concluded that Berenice had pushed the patient in violation of workplace rules against patient abuse and mishandling. She was terminated.
Berenice sued, alleging that she wasn’t guilty of breaking the rules.
The court accepted that Berenice might be telling the truth about the incident, but said that didn’t matter. What mattered was that the employer honestly believed Berenice was to blame.
The court said it wasn’t in the business of second-guessing disciplinary decisions that are arrived at in good faith if there’s no other evidence that discrimination was an underlying reason and the discipline merely a ruse. (Deanes v. North Mississippi State Hospital, No. 13-60250, 5th Cir., 2013)
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