Employers need flexibility when it comes to disciplining employees. But flexibility can’t come at the expense of members of a protected class.
Be careful before you approve different punishments for the same or very similar rule violations. It’s best to carefully document the decisions and the facts you used to determine how to mete out punishment in every case.
In the following case, the employer was able to justify the different treatment it gave a white and a black employee who broke rules allowing employees to buy merchandise.
Recent case: Michael Graham, who is black, worked as a manager for a Best Buy store. He complained to HR that he believed the company was treating black employees unfairly, and that black applicants had to meet higher standards in order to be hired.
Then a general manager discovered a computer Graham had set aside to purchase later. The manager became suspicious because the box indicated the computer was a discounted store display model, but the computer inside the box was new. The tag showed it to be a display model. Suspecting that Graham might have switched out computers, the manager checked the new computer box and found the display computer in it.
Graham admitted he had switched the computers, but explained that he had not yet prepared the purchase slip. That didn’t impress Best Buy. The company fired him for trying to get a deeper discount than he was entitled to.
Graham sued, alleging retaliation for his bias complaint.
In court, he pointed out that a white employee was not fired for violating another employee purchase rule. The white employee had rung up Best Buy Reward Zone points on discounted purchases, against the rules.
Best Buy said it considered the reward-points case less serious than the switched computer case. The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals said that distinction was perfectly legitimate. Trying to get a deep discount by switching computers was logically more serious than trying to run up reward points on legitimate employee discount purchases. It dismissed Graham’s case. (Graham v. Best Buy Stores, No. 07-4139, 6th Cir., 2008)
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