You might assume that firing an employee for breaking a safety rule would be “safe” from judicial criticism. After all, surely termination for misconduct is a legitimate reason.
That’s true to an extent. But if you don’t punish all workers equally for violating the same rule, you may run into trouble if the employee can show that others outside his protected class weren’t punished as severely. That’s a powerful motivation to get discipline right.
The bottom line is this: Track discipline, carefully document the underlying facts and punish employees uniformly.
Recent case: Craig, who is black, was fired from his job as a truck driver after he was involved in an accident. While driving on an interstate, he rammed into the rear of a bus traveling too slowly; he couldn’t stop before hitting it. A state trooper cited Craig for driving too fast for conditions.
The employer, following its disciplinary policy, investigated the accident, designating it as serious and preventable. It terminated Craig.
He sued, alleging that white truck drivers weren’t punished as severely for their accidents.
But the employer was ready. Not only couldn’t Craig point to a nonblack driver who had an accident under similar circumstances who wasn’t fired, the company told the court it fired a white driver the same month for a similar accident, too. That was enough to get the case tossed out. (Perry v. Mail Contractors of America, No. 3:12-CV-405, WD NC, 2013)
Final note: Do you track all discipline and routinely self-audit for fairness and uniformity? If not, start now. Go back a year and pull all discipline. Did everyone who broke the same rule end up punished the same? If not, are there documented reasons why not? If not, fix it going forward.