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November 15, 2011

The Other Secret Weapon: Consistency

In a recent blog post, I discussed the benefits of having a comprehensive policy manual and employee handbook in your HR arsenal.  Specifically, I outlined some of the recent updates made to our solution, HR Suite.  There is a missing component that we did not discuss: the need to ensure that your company’s supervisors are applying policies consistently with all of their subordinates.  Without this key piece, you may as well not even have a policy manual or employee handbook at all.

Inconsistent application of a company’s policies can negate the best intentions of any policy manual.  Take this recent case as an example, Eaton v. Indiana Department of Corrections (7th Circuit Court, Sept. 9, 2011).  Ms. Eaton was a corrections officer who had been warned about her excessive absenteeism and had been advised if the situation did not improve, she would be reassigned to a different – and less desirable to her – work shift.

After being reassigned to the other shift, Ms. Eaton took leave under FMLA.  Upon her return, she was reassigned to her original shift.  She was then involved in a car accident that exacerbated a pre-existing back injury and was placed on work restrictions by her doctor; she did not report these restrictions to the DOC until later.  After she refused an overtime assignment, a hearing was held and she disclosed the back injury.  At one point, she was assigned different work duties, and she refused based on her back pain.

Although she repeatedly requested that her supervisor reassign her to work she could perform and stated that she did not want to quit, the supervisor asked her to turn in her badge.  She did, but a short time later her supervisor reconsidered and allowed her to return to work for the next scheduled shift.  By the time she reported to work for that shift, the supervisor had again changed his mind and would not allow her to enter the facility for work.  She never returned.

She dropped the ADA claim, but instead pursued based on sex discrimination.  This came as a result of her discovery that a male corrections officer who reported to the same supervisor and had refused a work assignment.  In that instance, the male officer refused, became angry and quit.  He returned to work less than an hour later and was not subject to any disciplinary action.

In summary, the Court ruled that there were sufficient similarities in their conduct: both had refused an assignment from the same supervisor, both left, both returned quickly to the facility.  If anything, Ms. Eaton’s conduct could be considered less egregious due to the fact that she advised her supervisor she did not want to quit.

This case serves as an important reminder to organizations to ensure that supervisors carefully consider their disciplinary actions to ensure consistent treatment among their employees.

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