Even something as routine as a reprimand may end up being the basis for a lawsuit. That’s why someone in the HR department should be in charge of making sure that all disciplinary actions, including reprimands, are applied fairly and evenhandedly.
If a supervisor says he wants to issue a reprimand, ask whether others have been reprimanded for the same offense or infraction. Then check to see whether there are any differences based on race, age, sex or other protected characteristics.
Recent case: Linda Haithcox, who is black, worked as a detention officer for The GEO Group at a facility in Aurora. The facility detains people suspected of being illegal immigrants while they wait for administrative hearings.
Haithcox claimed she had trouble with her supervisor from early on because he insisted on using profanity, shouting, finger-pointing and “invading her zone of privacy.” The final indignity came when the supervisor ordered Haithcox to perform a strip-search on a detainee. Haithcox refused, believing the assignment was just another way to harass her. She was reprimanded and then fired for failing to comply with the order.
Haithcox sued, alleging harassment and race and sex discrimination. Haithcox pointed out that a white male employee who had refused a similar order was not reprimanded. Her reprimand, she contended, represented race and sex discrimination.
The court agreed and said she could go forward with her claims—including working in a hostile environment and race and sex discrimination. (Haithcox v. The GEO Group, No. 07-CV-00160, DC CO, 2008)
Final note: Bully supervisors are bad news, even if they view themselves as “equal opportunity” bullies. While you aren’t required to maintain a perfectly harmonious workplace, HR can help keep cases like this one out of court by ensuring equal treatment for all employees.
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