When an employee’s disciplined, managers often hear a complaint that parents will recognize: “But so-and-so did the same thing and didn’t get in trouble!” If the employees in question are different races or genders, that can be the basis for a discrimination lawsuit — maybe.
It depends on the reason for the difference in discipline. Take this recent court case as an example:
An African-American truck driver was caught leaving his vehicle unattended without locking the doors or securing the rear wheels, in violation of the company’s safety rules.
He was suspended for 60 days without pay. But he complained he was being discriminated against — he said a white co-worker had recently broken the same rule and was suspended for just two weeks.
He sued the company for discrimination.
The company argued that the two employees might’ve broken the same general rule, but that didn’t mean their conduct was the same. The manager pointed out differences in the severity of the workers’ behavior:
- The white employee left his truck unlocked and unattended for five minutes in the company’s parking lot, but
- The African-American driver left his truck unlocked in a public parking lot for at least 20 minutes while he shopped at a sporting goods store.
The court agreed that the employees committed different infractions and deserved different punishments. The case was thrown out.
Lessons for managers
How can managers defend their decisions when employees complain that discipline is doled out inconsistently? Here are three things they can keep in mind:
- Documentation — In the case above, the company kept detailed records of what the employees did to deserve their respective punishments, and could therefore prove the manager was dealing with two distinct cases. Something vague, like “He was suspended for violating safety policy,” wouldn’t have cut it.
- Different circumstances — Other court decisions have clarified that companies can hold employees to different standards if it’s based on non-biased factors. For example, if a veteran worker and a new hire are both caught breaking a rule, it might be fair to fire the employee who should’ve known better while giving the new employee another chance.
- Different damage — As the case above shows, managers can discipline differently based on the severity of an employee’s behavior, even when employees commit a similar type of violation. They just need to make sure they articulate why one employee needed a harsher punishment than the other.
Cite: Billue v. Praxair, Inc.