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When discrimination charges are possible, investigate thoroughly before firing

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Discrimination and Harassment,Firing,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Performance Reviews

When you fire an employee, you want the decision to stick. You certainly don’t want to use a flimsy reason for discharge and then find out later that other employees regularly ignore your rule. If the former employee is a member of a protected class, that’s a sure recipe for a discrimination lawsuit.

Instead, take your time to investigate the full extent of the employee’s performance problems or rule violations. Use those reasons as your discharge justification. That will lessen the chance that a jury will see your only reason as pretext for discrimination, since no one outside the employee’s protected class was fired for the same reason.

Recent case: Betty Perea, who is Hispanic, was fired from her job as a supervisor at a Hunter Douglas Window Fashions factory. The facility had a rule that required all scrap fabric to be weighed before it was tossed. A subordinate reported that Perea had tossed scrap without weighing it.

After a brief investigation, Perea was fired “due to your recent discarding of fabric scrap.” It added that “You are in violation of falsifying company production records.”

Perea sued, alleging that the rule had been selectively applied to her because she is Hispanic. She found a former employee who testified that supervisors had thrown out scraps as they saw fit despite the rule. That’s when the company tried to add other reasons, such as alleged poor leadership.

The court didn’t buy it. It ordered a jury trial, reasoning that Perea had put the legitimacy of the alleged discharge reason in question. A jury now will decide whether the charges were trumped up as an excuse to discriminate against Perea. (Perea v. Hunter Douglas Window Fashions, No. 06-CV-01374, DC CO, 2008)

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