Human Resources News & Insights

Careful: ‘Similarly situated’ definition can be slippery

HR pros know you have to treat “similarly situated” employees the same way or you risk getting sued. But two new court cases show how the definition of “similarly situated” isn’t always as clear cut as it seems.

An African-American employee was fired after she admitted to thinking about killing her boss.

She sued, claiming that two white colleagues who’d held a knife to the throat of a third colleague had only been suspended and not fired.

The firm claimed those staffers weren’t similarly situated, but a court ruled otherwise.

Why? The issue at hand — a no-tolerance ban on violent or threatening behavior — was a policy that applied to everyone regardless of position.

In the second case, an African-American who worked for the United Parcel Service was fired after he falsified records about the amount of training he was conducting.

He sued, claiming other non-African-American employees who reported to a different supervisor had also falsified forms. The court agreed, saying that the company had taken a too-narrow view of “similarly situated” staff.

Remember: Even if employees have different supervisors or job titles, it doesn’t automatically mean that they’re not similarly situated.

The cases are Coleman v. Donahoe and Bobo v. United Parcel Service, Inc.

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