Of course, supervisors should never say anything off-color, insensitive or downright stupid. Unfortunately, it happens.
However, it takes more than one dumb outburst to support a discrimination claim unless the comment is obviously highly offensive. Less than that, and an employee’s lawsuit is likely to be tossed out.
Recent case: Mary Ann worked as a police officer, largely on the graffiti team. The other team members and her supervisor were men.
Soon, Mary Ann found herself on the receiving end of criticism. Her supervisor complained about her uniform and report writing. At one point, after noticing errors on a report, he allegedly exclaimed, “You’re a girl and you can’t type!”
He also disciplined her for not having her notebook ready. But several men who didn’t carry their notebooks were also disciplined.
Mary Ann sued, alleging sex discrimination. She noted the typing comment, alleging this was a clear indication that she had been targeted for criticism because of her sex.
But the court tossed out her lawsuit, noting that the single comment wasn’t sexual harassment, nor was it evidence that her supervisor discriminated on the basis of sex. It was merely an ill-timed, angry comment. That’s not illegal. (Camarda v. City of New York, et al., No. 11-CV-2629, ED NY, 2015)
Final note: The key to discipline is fairness. Conduct spot audits to ensure that similar infractions yield similar punishment. Be prepared to explain if that’s not the case. Details matter—make sure you document them.
- How to Fire an Employee the Legal Way: 6 Termination Guidelines
- Can you accommodate disabilities you don't know about?
- Despite complaint, unreasonable demands may merit firing
- Rework your severance plan: More prospective employees seeking this safety net
- What's likely to happen when an employee waits two months to charge harassment?