Violence on the job? OK to base punishment on job classification and severity of offense

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

While a zero-tolerance policy for fighting on the job is a good idea, it may not always be necessary. Instead, you can draw a distinction between violent transgressions and mere arguments that escalate into pushing or shoving.

You also may want the discretion to punish workers in some categories more harshly than others. That’s OK.

Recent case: Sandra McLean worked as a security officer until the company fired her for fighting with another female employee. McLean was apparently the more violent of the two women—she bit the co-worker’s finger and pulled two dreadlocks out of the woman’s head, requiring medical treatment.

The company fired McLean for violating its no-violence rule, while the co-worker was just suspended for three days.

McLean sued for sex discrimination, comparing her situation to that of two male janitors who allegedly got into an argument during which one threatened the other with a hammer. The janitors received only three-day suspensions.

The court disagreed. It threw out McLean’s case after concluding that employers can punish security officers more harshly than janitors. Plus, the janitors didn’t harm each other, while McLean inflicted injury. Finally, the court said there couldn’t have been sex discrimination at play since the woman McLean hurt was suspended for the same time period as the men. (McLean v. Addiction Research, No. 06-CV-3668, SD NY, 2008)

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