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Fired for 1st violation? Better explain why

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

There’s a first time for everything—including firing someone for violating a rule. But that may spell trouble if other employees weren’t punished for breaking the same rule. Make sure you carefully document exactly why you are firing an employee for the first time for breaking a particular rule.

If the rule is new, say so. If it’s old and others haven’t been punished, be prepared to show that you warned everyone that the next violation would result in discipline. Otherwise, expect a discrimination lawsuit.

Recent case: Harlan, who is black, was a detention officer at the Dela­­ware County Juvenile Detention Center.

A policy prohibited employees from using cellphones within the facility. Harlan was fired after being videotaped making a cellphone call that lasted about five minutes. He used his phone in a stairwell and locker area that inmates couldn’t access. Harlan was the first employee fired under the cellphone policy.

He sued, alleging race discrimination. He pointed out that white em­­ployees caught using cellphones had not been fired. The detention center couldn’t explain why it singled out Harlan. The court said his ­lawsuit could go forward. (John­­son v. Delaware County Juvenile Deten­­tion Center, No. 13-3060, 3rd Cir., 2013)

Final note: Courts don’t want to interfere with how you discipline workers, but do want to see fairness. Make their job easier. If you adopt a new rule, make sure every employee knows about it. Explain the consequences, including the possibility that breaking the rule can mean termination. Then enforce the rule uniformly.

If you’re starting to enforce an old rule, let employees know that also. Explain that in the past, enforcement has been lax but that this is about to change.

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