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Use reasonable rules to beat discipline suits

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

For the most part, courts don’t want to second-guess employer discipline. As long as you have reasonable rules in place, let employees know what those rules are and en­­force them consistently, most judges will uphold your disciplinary decisions.

Recent case: Aida, who is of Fili­­pino descent, worked as a part-time nurse for the maternity ward at a hospital. Nursing guidelines included instructions in preventing blood-borne pathogen exposure, including proper handling of contaminated clothing and equipment.

Aida was caring for a newborn child who was HIV-positive, as well as her HIV-positive mother. When the new mother emerged from the shower while Aida was medicating the baby, the mother dropped her towel and underwear. Aida admitted that she asked the patient’s sister to pick up the items, which were contaminated with blood. She also admitted that having a visitor pick them up violated the blood-borne pathogen policy. Aida was fired.

She sued, alleging, among other claims, national-origin discrimination.

The hospital said it fired Aida for one reason only—that she violated the pathogen rule.

The court tossed out the lawsuit. Aida couldn’t show that employees belonging to another classification were treated more leniently for similar violations. The rule was reasonable and Aida knew about it. Therefore, absent any evidence of selective enforcement, the court wouldn’t interfere with the hospital’s discipline. (Oliva v. County of Santa Clara, No. 5:13-CV-02927, ND CA, 2014)

Final note: Make sure employees receive a copy of your handbook and any additional documents that include rules you expect them to follow. Get an acknowledgment that they have received and had a chance to read those rules and ask for clarification. When rules change, update the handbook or other documents and distribute them again. Track distribution.

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