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Document discipline investigation steps to show sincerity, lack of discrimination

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in Discrimination and Harassment,HR Management,Human Resources

Employers that want to make sure their termination decisions stick should carefully track each step of the underlying investigation.

That’s the only way they can show a court they acted in a “reasonably informed and considered” way. That’s the standard the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has set for finding that a decision wasn’t influenced by discrimination, even if it turns out to have been erroneous.

Here’s how to document your investigation: Assign one individual to be responsible for tracking each step, from initial supervisor referral to termination. Then have a neutral party (the loss prevention officer, an HR manager or someone else who doesn’t directly manage the employee) interview those involved and come to a decision.

Recent case: Home Depot fired Sharon Sybrandt for allegedly violating a rule that said employees couldn’t ring up their own purchases or place special orders under their own passwords. Sybrandt had made some computer notations in one of her special orders, and the HR office found out.

It ordered an investigation. A loss prevention officer interviewed everyone involved and concluded Sybrandt had violated the rule. She sued, alleging sex discrimination.

The 6th Circuit said Home Depot had proved it made the discharge decision in a “reasonably informed and considered” way by conducting a thorough investigation. That was enough—even if it turned out it was wrong about whether Sybrandt’s actions violated the rule. (Sybrandt v. Home Depot, No. 08-5598, 6th Cir., 2009)

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