As an employer, investigating employee misconduct and assessing proper punishment to each employee involved in breaking the rules is often complicated. It is very important to complete this task carefully and meticulously, though, especially if one the employees involved is a member of a protected class. In the case of one bank, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decided that its decision to punish an African-American employee involved in a workplace fight more harshly than the white employee involved in the same fight may constitute racial discrimination. The unfavorable ruling for this employer highlights the potential pitfalls that can await employers that issue different punishments to employees involved in similar misdeeds, especially when the employees are of different races, genders, religions, and so on.
The case began with a verbal disagreement between Curtis Wheat and Brad Hatfield, two male co-workers at Fifth Third Bank. The disagreement escalated into an argument and eventually a physical fight. After the event, the bank sent Michelle Healy, an employee relations consultant, to interview both of the men. An angry Wheat told Healy that he would “take care of [the problem with Hatfield] myself” and “Monday is going to be a big day,” but he refused to elaborate further.