BY MINDY CHAPMAN, ESQ.
Do you sometimes let employees bend company policy … just a little? It’s really no big deal, right?
A new court ruling warns that if you start bending a policy for one, you’d better be ready to bend it for all. Being flexible can sometimes be fatal.
Case in Point: Cheron Dinkins worked for 12 years as a school bus driver in New York. On one occasion, he dropped off two students at an undesignated bus stop because one of the kids was hurrying to a doctor’s appointment nearby.
Shortly after, Dinkins was fired for violating the bus company’s drop-off policy.
Dinkins sued for sex discrimination. He argued that the unplanned stop shouldn’t have been a firing offense because company policy gave drivers the right to drop off students at unauthorized bus stops in cases of emergencies.
He also claimed other female bus drivers violated that policy “with impunity” and were never disciplined. The bus company defended itself by arguing that female bus drivers who violated the same policy were “not similarly situated” to Dinkins.
What happened next? The court rejected the bus company’s request for summary judgment. Instead, it gave Dinkins the green light to drop the case off at the courtroom for a jury to decide.
Reason: The court focused on the company’s inconsistent treatment of drivers who violated the drop-off policy, saying female drivers violated those policies “on a regular basis, in plain view of supervisors and yet experienced no adverse employment action whatsoever.” (Dinkins v. Suffolk Transp. Servs., ED NY, 2/9/09)
3 Lessons Learned
1. DITO DITA. Do It To One. Do It To All. It’s a simple rule to follow.
2. Flexible policies need to be treated with flexibility. If policies allow for employees to use their own personal judgment, then be cautious about imposing discipline. Personal judgment varies and requires a flexible approach when assessing discipline.
3. Supervisors need to be trained like Rockettes. It's all about consistency. When one supervisor makes decisions inconsistent with other supervisors, it's easy to spot. Inconsistency breeds liability, as it did in this case.