Honeywell International learned the hard way a lesson that comes up regularly with employers: An employee who has had a long-standing problem with X. And X can be anything from tardiness, forgetting to clock out, violating dress code, missing regular internal filing deadlines, or some other consistent deficiency, that is frustrating and warrants discipline, yet for one reason or another (too busy, forgot, not enough staff and need to keep her happy) the employee gets away with her behavior and soon it becomes just part of the office fabric.
Then one day, a new manager comes in, or someone has just finally had enough, and it is time to lay down the law, draw a line in the sand, and one way or another, get the situation under control. That may be well and good, and while better late than never may be an option with discipline, it definitely is not ideal when the first iteration of discipline follows on the heels of some protected activity, like seeking FMLA.
Honeywell did just this. It fired 12- year employee, Janice Washington, because she was repeatedly late for work. Sounds reasonable. It was not. The problem, said the trial court judge who has sent Ms. Washington’s claim to a jury for resolution, was that Honeywell never disciplined Ms. Washington until after she exercised her rights to take FMLA-leave related to stress, anxiety and hypertension. To make matters worse, said the judge, Honeywell had not imposed discipline on other employees who similar or worse records of tardiness. Therefore, Honeywell’s motion for summary judgment was denied.
The lesson here is pretty simple. Document and/or discipline when the situation presents itself. Do not ignore a problem with an employee, hoping it will stop or just go away. That said, do not decide to finally wake up and take action the day after the employee engages in some form of protected activity that makes you remember to issue discipline. The timing won’t play well.