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Suspension under a valid workplace policy could be a pretext

Employees in Boca Raton likely know that something like criminal activity, employee misconduct or even a serious violation of company policy could cost them their job or result in a temporary suspension while the claims are being investigated. These actions alone would likely not be considered by a court to violate an employee’s rights.

Alone they may not be considered a rights violation, but like any other adverse employment action, it must be looked at in context.

What if an employee is accused by a co-worker of stealing something that belongs to the company, whether it is office goods, time, secrets, money or anything else? What if the employee is suspended immediately and told that his or her position would be held until an investigation was complete?

This, in itself, might not raise any suspicion or concern. But what if we add another little detail to our scenario? Let’s say that the employee notices that in some cases, the employer responds exactly the same way. Then there is the other half of the cases when the employer only gives the accused a little warning. The employee begins to notice a pattern, those that received a suspension happen to be of the same race, this employee’s race.

A case was recently brought to the attention of a human resources online journal based on this scenario. The case involved one employee claiming that another had threatened him by waving a sharp object in his face. He reported the incident.

After reporting the incident, the man discussed his feelings with co-workers. He said that he would “go postal” if he was fired as a result of the other employee. He allegedly combined this threat with a common hand motion mimicking a gun.

The employee that made the gun motion and the report was suspended without pay. The employee that allegedly threatened with the sharp object was required to undergo counseling with the other employee. On appeal, the court ruled that the workplace violence policy applied in both cases, and that both employees should have been treated in a similar manner “in terms of investigations and punishments.”

An employer that treats similarly situated employees differently under the same policy could be using the policy as a pretext for race discrimination. Even a seemingly legitimate reason for an adverse employment action could be considered discrimination when it is used inconsistently amongst employees of a protected class.

Source: HR.BLR.com, “Race discrimination: Employee suspended for threat has viable claim, court rules,” Feb. 6, 2014

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