Sometimes a supervisor targets the members of protected classes for poor treatment. But what looks like discrimination sometimes isn’t.
Employers can learn the truth—and often protect themselves from liability—by holding off on discipline until after HR has conducted a thorough, independent investigation. As the following case shows, an independent investigation can fix many underlying problems.
Recent case: Dava Dalvit and Debra Benjamin worked for United Airlines as ramp supervisors when they were selected for a special project. They would later claim that a supervisor told them the project would involve some long days—but the two women would be free to make up for those hours by working shorter shifts later on. They used electronic swipe cards to track work time, so Dalvit and Benjamin asked how they should record their shifts. The company told them a supervisor would get back to them.
United suspended the two after other employees complained that the women were not working full shifts. A different supervisor referred their case to HR after he ran their time records and concluded they had violated company rules against skipping out early without permission.
HR’s independent investigation eventually cleared Dalvit and Benjamin. It found they hadn’t broken any specific rules.
They sued anyway, alleging sex discrimination. To bolster their case, they gave examples of the second supervisor’s alleged anti-female bias.
But the court refused to let the case go to trial. It said there was no proof the investigation was anything but independent. The judge also said that there was no evidence that triggered the investigation, while there was ample proof that others who had seen the two leave early had complained.
In other words, this was not a situation where a supervisor tried to set up employees by telling them one thing and then punished them for doing that very thing. Instead, it was a case where others may not have realized what was going on and complained about an apparent rule violation. (Dalvit & Benjamin v. United Air Lines, No. 07-CV-00726, DC CO, 2008)
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