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Equal enforcement keeps juries from wondering about bias

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Employees who lose their jobs after committing some infraction often look for reasons to sue—after all, they have nothing further to lose and everything to gain. Don’t give them an excuse to drag you into court!

The best way to immunize your organization from lawsuits: Equitably and fairly enforce your work rules.

Usually that means issuing similar punishments for similar violations.

Recent case: Dianna Messer was 59 years old when Starbucks fired her from her job as a coffee shop manager. Starbucks said it fired her because she used a petty cash fund to balance the store registers every evening. That violated a company policy that required reporting to the company all shortages and overages. Starbucks said the policy was in place to protect the integrity of the accounting process and to flag potential employee theft.

Starbucks replaced Messer with a much younger male, and she sued for sex and age discrimination.

In court, she pointed out that a younger male employee had received a much more lenient punishment than she did. The man had been accused of allowing more than one employee to share a register, a practice Starbucks prohibits. That policy is in place to help identify an employee who might be stealing; if more than one has access to the same register, it’s impossible to tell who might be responsible for cash drawer shortages. The young man received just an oral reprimand.

Starbucks argued that it didn’t matter how it punished the male because he broke a different rule. The court disagreed. It said that both rules had similar purposes—to help prevent theft and account properly for all receipts. Therefore, they should have been enforced evenhandedly.

The court said the case could go to trial, where Messer will try to persuade a jury that Starbucks targeted her for termination because of her sex or age. (Messer v. Starbucks, No. 1:06-CV-573, SD OH, 2008)

Final note: Have someone who is not directly involved in determining punishment monitor discipline by protected characteristics.

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