Just Cause Defined

The following questions should be asked in order to establish whether a situation meets the standards of Just Cause. The questions reflect standards frequently applied by arbitrators.

1.  Was the employee warned in advance? In many cases, a rule that hasn't been enforced in the past cannot be involved for purposes of discipline or discharge without a clear warning in advance. Likewise, a sudden or "surprise" discharge is usually improper except in cases such as major theft, substance abuse on-the-job, assault on a supervisor, etc., that are clearly explained in management policy.

2.  Were progressive or graduated discipline applied? This follows from the previous point: The penalty is expected to increase for repeated violations. A typical progression for repeated absenteeism might consist of a verbal warning followed by a written warning, a three-day suspension, then discharge.

3.  Does the punishment fit the "crime" and the past record of the employee? Again, this is related to the previous two points: Discharging an employee for a single absence or for a minor violation of management rules is generally considered inappropriate.

4.  Was there an investigation? Was it conducted fairly and impartially or was there evidence of an effort to "burn" or "trap" an individual employee for practices that are generally unchallenged?

5.  Did the investigation turn up substantial evidence of wrongdoing?

6.  Are management's rules reasonable? Could an employee be expected to follow the rule or policy in question or would this be impossible? A utility company's rule that meter readers may not leave their work area might be viewed as unreasonable. Where do employees eat, use a restroom, etc.?

7.   Are there extenuating circumstances behind the employee's action? Often there are physical or medical reasons underlying absenteeism, poor work, etc. A fight might have been provoked.

8.  Are the rules clearly posted and understandable? Are they specific?

9.  Is the rule in question clearly related to the efficiency of safety of the Employer's operations? Sometimes management seems to like rules for their own sake. Cranking out rules, regardless of their purpose, may satisfy someone's need for importance or authority and help justify his/her job or very existence.

10. Are the rules enforced uniformly and consistently? Is there evidence of discrimination or harassment? There may be others with similar or worse work records who have not been disciplined. This can often, but not always, be used to show unequal treatment. However, the employee's past disciplinary record may be used to justify a more serious penalty.

11. Is there management collusion or shared guilt? Have management personnel violated their own rules or encouraged employees to ignore certain rules? For instance, have others been known to drink on the job?
Source: Labor Education and Research Center, Indiana University