When an altercation among employees turns physical, a supervisor might be inclined to just fire everyone, without worrying about who did what first.

But that may not be the best course, as a recent case at a freight-handling company in Alabama shows.

One day, a white worker was helping to load a container into a semi-trailer. When he saw another worker watching, he cursed the second worker — who was black — and called him lazy.

Next, according to witnesses, the black worker went to the trailer and climbed inside. The white worker pointed his finger in the other’s face. The black worker took a swing at him.

The shift supervisor suspended both workers. After an investigation, the supervisor gave the white worker a written warning and fired the black worker. The black worker sued for racial discrimination, arguing that the white worker had engaged in conduct similar to his but was not terminated.

Not the same conduct
The courts disagreed. They said the conduct of someone who tries to hit a co-worker is much different from that of one who curses and points a finger, and so differing employee discipline was not out of place or an indication of bias.

The bottom line: Depending on your organization’s policy and the facts, it may be appropriate – and legal – to discipline the combatants unequally.

Cite: Floyd v. Federal Express Corp., No.10-12463, 11th Cir., 4/19/11.

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