What Your Business Can Learn From This Year's Heisman Trophy Award

This weekend Cam Newton, the quarterback for Auburn University, won the Heisman Trophy.  For those of you who do not follow college football, the Heisman is an award given to the most outstanding player in collegiate football each year.  If you do follow college football, you are probably aware that this year’s award carries with it a scandal based on claims that Newton's father tried to get another college to pay $180,000 for his son to play for them.  Although it has suggested that its investigation is on-going, the NCAA so far has found no evidence that Cam Newton or Auburn knew about his father’s scheme.  Cam Newton has denied any wrongdoing, although he does have a past history of brushes with the law.  Not surprisingly, this situation generated a lot of discussion about whether Cam Newton is worthy of the award.

I won’t weigh in on that question but this situation does remind me of a scenario that I’ve encountered many times in defending companies against discrimination lawsuits.  An employee is either disciplined for some form of inappropriate conduct or is investigated but the evidence does not support discipline.  A short time later, the same employee receives an award or promotion.  In any litigation that arises from the employee’s (alleged) conduct, a central piece of the plaintiff’s case is going to be that she complained about the employee and instead of taking action, the company rewarded the employee; in the alternative scenario, the company disciplined the employee but shortly after rewarded him, making the discipline meaningless. 

I do not mean to suggest that employees who are merely accused of wrongdoing should not be eligible to promotion or awards.  Nor do I suggest that an across the board ban on awards or promotion for employees who have received discipline is the best approach, although I have worked with clients who have such rules.  Rather, my point is that employers should be aware of how their actions will appear to outsiders (e.g. jurors) and be prepared to answer the accusations of individuals who may find the award or promotion to be offensive given the circumstances. 

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