One of the easiest ways to get in legal trouble is to discipline two employees differently for breaking the same rule.
But there’s an easy way to avoid most discrimination claims arising from differing discipline: Conduct a thorough investigation and maintain careful documentation showing why you chose the discipline you did.
Recent case: Rafaella was fired for allegedly falsifying patient records in violation of a work rule that said dishonesty is a dischargeable offense.
She sued, alleging that she had been treated differently than another employee who kept her job even after admitting that she had lied on her employment application about having a masters’ degree.
The employer explained to the court why the other employee wasn’t terminated and Rafaella was.
First, the other employee was overqualified for her position even without the masters’ degree; she held a job that apparently didn’t require much training. Second, unlike Rafaella’s alleged misconduct, there was no danger that the other employee’s action would have harmed patients, as incorrect records might.
Finally, there had been a different honesty policy in place earlier that didn’t require discharge. HR told the court that under the new rule, both employees would have been terminated.
The court said the employer had adequately explained the differences in punishment for seemingly similar rule violations. The other employee’s more lenient punishment therefore wasn’t evidence of discrimination against Rafaella. (Innella v. Lenape Valley Foundation, No. 14-2862, ED PA, 2015)