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OK to fire and then investigate—But be consistent

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Firing,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Preventing Workplace Violence

It’s legitimate to discipline or fire employees who behave badly. But employers that mandate suspension or termination for rule violations must apply the policy to everyone who violates the same rule.

Then they should follow up with a prompt and thorough investigation into exactly what happened. If the investigation warrants it, it’s OK to revoke the discipline or termination.

Recent case: Airborne Express has a policy that requires managers to terminate rule breakers right away, and then conduct an investigation. Sometimes, the investigation results in a reinstatement.

Cornelius Williams, who is black, was twice terminated for breaking Airborne’s rules. Once, he was caught working out at a gym instead of delivering packages. The second time, he screamed at a supervisor and called him a coward. Both terminations were rescinded in favor of suspensions.

But Williams’ behavior didn’t improve. He was fired a third time—for insubordination—after he got into another screaming match and appeared to physically threaten a supervisor. This time, the company refused to reinstate him. Williams sued, alleging race discrimination.

The court dismissed his case. It reasoned that someone who habitually breaks rules and is insubordinate is not meeting reasonable expectations.

Plus, there was no evidence that any white employee had been fired and reinstated more than once for similar behavior. Nor was there evidence the company didn’t consistently handle all rule violations with termination followed by a hearing. In short, Williams was treated just like everyone else—no better and no worse. (Williams v. Airborne Express, No. 07-2225, 7th Cir., 2008)

Final note: Workplace violence is on the rise. Ignoring outbursts or waiting to act until you can complete an investigation may pose risks. That’s one good reason to get disruptive employees out right away. Just remember to follow through with a thorough investigation and document the facts and your conclusions.

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