Wise employers know that consistency in discipline is key, but what does that mean? If two employees are involved in an altercation, must both employees receive the exact same discipline? According to a recent federal court decision, the answer is “not necessarily.”

In Findlator v. Allina Health Clinics, two coworkers – one black and one white – began arguing. The white employee threw a lab coat at the black employee (which missed her), and the black employee shoved the white employee. Other employees separated the two and Human Resources conducted an investigation. HR concluded that the white employee had violated the company’s Respectful Workplace Policy, and she was given a written warning and suspended. As to the black employee, HR found that she not only violated the same policy, but also the company’s Violence-free Workplace Policy, and she was terminated. She then sued for race discrimination, contending that she and her coworker should have received the same discipline for being involved in the same altercation.

Although the Violence-free Workplace policy made no distinction between threats of violence and actual violence, or between levels of violence, the court found that the employer was free both to make such distinctions and to select corrective action proportional to the severity of the policy violation. Thus, the employer could determine that shoving a fellow employee was a more serious violation than throwing a lab coat, and could discipline accordingly.

The lesson here is that employers need not blindly apply the same corrective action in each case. Factors such as the individual employee’s specific conduct and disciplinary history may be taken into consideration in determining the appropriate level of discipline.