The scenario: A woman was hired by a religious institution that asked all its employees to sign a code of ethics. Those who violated the code could be terminated.
The code listed several types of behavior that might lead to dismissal, including the use of illegal drugs, gambling and immoral conduct.
During a meeting with her supervisor, the woman was told that she’d be taking on more duties. She asked for a pay increase, which was denied. Then she told her manager that she was pregnant, even though she wasn’t yet married.
A few days later, the woman was fired because she allegedly violated the employer’s code of ethics – it was plain that she’d had premarital sex.
Legal challenge: The woman sued for pregnancy discrimination.
The ruling: The employer lost. The court ruled that the woman’s lawsuit could proceed.
The judge determined that the employer enforced its code of ethics policy unevenly. For instance, no other employees were asked about their sexual activities.
As a result, the woman was fired because the manager would be able to see that she was pregnant. In contrast, a male worker who’d engaged in premarital sex wouldn’t have been discovered because he wouldn’t have been pregnant.
The judge also observed that premarital sex wasn’t specifically listed as a banned behavior in the code of ethics.
The skinny: Be careful about firing people for breaching a code of ethics. As the case illustrates, terminations motivated by moral concerns must be handled evenly. If someone is let go for violating a code of ethics, you have to be able to show that other staffers who disregarded the same code of ethics were also dismissed.
Cite: Crisitello v. St. Theresa School, Superior Court of New Jersey, No. A-4713-18T3, 11/19/20.
(From the Feb. 19, 2021, issue of HR Manager’s Legal Alert for Supervisors. To sign up for a no-obligation trial subscription right now, please click here.)