When it comes to disciplining employees, one size almost never fits all. An individual approach—one that considers the very specific circumstances that led to the discipline—is usually best.
Here’s why: Employees who are fired for violating company rules often blame discrimination. But to win a discrimination lawsuit, they must show that others who don’t belong to their protected class were treated more favorably for similar conduct. That becomes almost impossible to do if every employee who is disciplined is charged with a very fact-specific violation rather than under a general one.
Take, for example, a company rule against fraternizing with clients. If you use the rule to punish 10 employees without spelling out the exact misbehavior, you had better mete out exactly the same punishment for each one.
On the other hand, if you reprimand one employee for minor fraternization, but fire another for living with a client, chances are a court won’t conclude they were being treated differently for the same conduct.
Recent case: April King, a black woman, worked as a corrections officer. Department rules prohibit personal relationships with current or past inmates. Employees must report prior relationships with inmates.
King reported that she had been a childhood friend of a male inmate. After the inmate was released, managers learned King might be involved with the man. That turned out to be true, since she ultimately married him.
King was fired when surveillance seemed to show that the former inmate stayed at her home.
She sued, alleging that others who broke the same “no personal relationship” rule were not fired. She tried to compare her conduct to seven others, but the agency was able to show that those employees—while they may have broken the same rule—didn’t break it the same way. One merely had her hair braided by an inmate. Another mailed a letter for an inmate, and so on. The court ruled against King’s motion for summary judgment. (King v. State of Ohio, No. 2:05-CV-966, SD OH, 2009)
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