When conducting internal investigations into alleged wrongdoings, make sure you don’t treat employees who belong to a protected class (e.g., age, sex, race or disability) differently than others who may have misbehaved.
As the following case shows, discharging one person based on an emotional reaction during an interview and keeping another who kept his cool under questioning may lead to a discrimination lawsuit.
Recent case: Julie McGrotha worked for FedEx Ground when money went missing from a safe. A security videotape showed both McGrotha and a male co-worker entering the safe at the time the funds disappeared, although it didn’t show either removing anything.
An internal investigator called both employees in for interviews to explain what had happened. McGrotha became emotional when she thought she was being accused of theft. The male co-worker remained calm and answered all the investigator’s questions.
Based on McGrotha’s reaction, the investigator concluded she was not cooperating with the investigation. FedEx Ground then fired her for lack of cooperation, while the co-worker remained employed.
McGrotha sued for sex discrimination, claiming the company treated the co-worker more leniently, even though he was just as likely to have taken the money.
The court ordered a trial, concluding that the two employees had been treated differently despite being in similar situations: Both had been seen on tape opening the safe and both were interviewed, but only McGrotha was fired for alleged lack of cooperation. A jury now will decide if the underlying reason for the different treatment was sex discrimination. (McGrotha v. Fed Ex Ground, No. 5; 05-CV-391, MD GA, 2007)