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Track rationale for all discipline decisions

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in Human Resources

Employees who sue for discrimination usually have to show they were punished more harshly than other employees outside their protected class. Counter such claims with specifics.

While you may have punished 10 employees this year for breaking the same rule, chances are that each case was unique—and that you made the punishment fit the crime. That’s fine. Should you be sued, make sure you can explain it.

Recent case: Leisa McCullough worked for the town of Southern Pines as a police officer. Over the years, she complained on and off about the way female officers were treated. She said male officers didn’t respect and support the women.

Then, while working with another junior officer, McCullough assisted with an arrest. While searching the suspect, she found a plastic bag containing a rock-like substance. Rather than sending the bag’s contents to the drug lab, she threw it in the garbage. She was later terminated for destroying potential evidence.

That’s when McCullough sued, alleging she had been punished for complaining about unequal treatment. She claimed male officers who had broken similar rules were not terminated.

But the town provided the court with disciplinary records that showed no one else had been charged with tossing out evidence. Instead, the men she tried to use as comparisons had left various weapons unsecured. Senior officers explained that they saw such conduct as negligence or forgetfulness. However, they viewed throwing out potential evidence of criminal conduct as an intentional act that deserved more severe punishment.

The court agreed that the conduct was not the same and that the department had discretion to punish negligence less harshly than purposeful acts. It tossed out McCullough’s case. (McCullough v. Town of Southern Pines, No. 1:09-CV-192, MD NC, 2010)

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