Tennis coach’s firing serves up lesson in employee discipline

Progressive discipline is a system in which penalties increase upon repeat occurrences. The typical stages in the workplace are:

  1. oral warning
  2. written warning
  3. suspension or demotion
  4. termination

But don’t pick and choose which employees you run through progressive discipline. It’s critical to apply those procedures to all employees or none, as this new case shows.

Case in Point: Debbie Peirick coached the tennis team at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). In her 13th season, she led the team to its best record and qualified for the NCAA tournament for the first time.

Still, the school fired her because some players complained about her communication style. The problem with the firing: Peirick wasn’t given any warning about the school’s dissatisfaction, which conflicted with the university’s written progressive discipline policy. Two other male coaches who committed more serious violations (allowing underage athletes to drink alcohol) were given warnings.

Peirick, 53, was replaced with the sister of the men’s tennis coach. She was 23, had no prior coaching experience and was given a higher salary than Peirick. As you can expect, Peirick sued IUPUI for sex discrimination and the court sent the case to trial. (Peirick v. Ind. Univ.-Purdue Univ. Indianapolis Athletic Dept., 7th Cir.)

3 Lessons Learned

1. Follow your progressive discipline policy. If you have one in writing, make sure you train all managers and supervisors to follow it.

2. Do it to one, do it to all. Be fair and consistent when applying discipline to employees in order to avoid discrimination claims based on gender, age, religion, national origin, race/color, etc.

3. Better have a great reason to deviate and jump right to termination. The court in this case took into consideration that co-workers were “shocked” and “baffled” by the coach’s firing, noting that how the university treated Peirick was “outside the norm.” The court thought a jury could find the university’s reasons for termination to be a “pretext” for gender bias.