The only thing between your organization and a discriminatory discharge verdict is the HR office. An impartial and cool-headed HR professional must oversee the process every time an employee is terminated.
Keep careful track of exactly how the decision-making process moves forward in every case. Your records should include what disciplinary action followed a rule violation. That way, you’ll be able to easily see if one employee is being treated differently than another who belongs to a protected class.
Finally, insist that HR have the final word on termination—the only way to stop a rogue supervisor from firing one employee while sparing others who committed the same offense.
Recent case: Debbie Peirick coached a university women’s tennis team for years, but the university fired her following the most successful season in the team’s history. Her supervisor made the firing decision without much input from the HR office. The allegation? That Peirick yelled obscenities at her players and was a poor van driver.
Peirick sued, alleging sex discrimination. As proof, she pointed to male colleagues who had been charged with the same sort of behavior, but who had merely been warned and counseled rather than fired.
Although the district court dismissed her case, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated her lawsuit and ordered a trial. The court said such differential treatment by a supervisor was indirect proof of possible sex discrimination. A jury will get to decide the case. (Peirick v. Indiana University-Purdue, et al., No. 06-1538, 7th Cir., 2007)
Final note: This was an $11,000-per-year job. Don’t assume that a part-time, low-paying job means the discharged employee won’t sue. The dollar value doesn’t always drive the litigation.
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