Remember when Amy Cooper, a White woman, had her dog off the leash and Christian Cooper (no relation), a Black man, asked her to put her dog back on the leash? This was a perfectly reasonable request, and it all escalated to Ms. Cooper calling the police on Mr. Cooper and, well, it didn’t turn out as Ms. Cooper expected, did it?
Her employer, Franklin Templeton, acted swiftly.
Note a key phrase here: “internal review.”
Ms. Cooper is now suing Franklin Templeton, claiming that she’s a victim of racial discrimination. If she weren’t White, Ms. Cooper claims, they would have conducted a thorough investigation rather than terminating her so quickly.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Ms. Cooper will lose her lawsuit because Franklin Templeton acted within the boundaries of the law.
I am the first to say that you should take a deep breath and conduct an investigation before terminating anyone. Sometimes, as Chipotle embarrassingly found out, videos don’t tell the whole story.
I don’t know the extent of the internal review Franklin Templeton conducted. Ms. Cooper claims there was no investigation, despite statements to the contrary. Franklin Templeton stands by its decision.
Spokesperson Stacey Coleman emailed CNN, saying, “We believe the circumstances of the situation speak for themselves and that the company responded appropriately. We will defend against these baseless claims.”
It doesn’t matter if there were more to the story. The law does not require employers to conduct FBI-level investigations and gain enough evidence to convict someone of a crime before terminating. Employment Attorney Jon Hyman explains:
As long as Franklin Templeton has an honest belief in the reasons for its termination based on an investigation and it doesn’t have a history of not firing similarly situated employees under similar circumstances, the termination decision should be protected.
That “honest belief” standard is a good one to remember when you are conducting investigations. You don’t have to be perfect, and you don’t need to believe beyond a reasonable doubt that the person behaved inappropriately. You need an honest belief and consistency in the punishment application.
Video can tell only a portion of the story. Franklin Templeton probably should have taken more than a day to terminate to ensure fairness. But, they should have no trouble meeting the “honest belief” standard that Ms. Cooper behaved in a racist manner that embarrassed the company.
Her claim now is not likely to go very far. Attorney Hyman believes, and I agree, that this is most likely a publicity stunt rather than an actual winnable lawsuit.
Do take your time to investigate claims, even when there is viral video. It will save you headaches in the long run, and it does give you time to get a better understanding of the full picture. But, the honest belief standard is good enough. It would be tough to find any jury that would say Franklin Templeton didn’t have an honest belief that her behavior reflected poorly on the company.
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