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Assigning black staff to black clients: Is that bias?

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Here’s a problem you might not see coming: Let’s say you have an employee who belongs to a protected class, and whose skills you believe will help when relating to others of the same protected class—language or cultural awareness skills, for example.

Before you decide to assign work to the employee based on those skills, consider whether doing so is, in effect, unspoken discrimination.

That’s a particular risk if employees view the job assignment as less desirable, as this new court ruling shows.

Recent case: Pamela Altman, who is black, worked as a child-protection investigator for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

She claimed that other investigators didn’t like to work in what she referred to as the inner-city “projects” and therefore she got those assignments. Plus, she alleged other employees were afraid to work with black males, so she got those assignments, too.

Altman sued, claiming that making her take all the cases involving poor black children amounted to race discrimination. The court agreed, rejecting the agency’s summary judgment bid and sending the case to a jury trial. (Altman v. Department of Children and Family Services, No. 06-CV-771, SD IL, 2009)

Final note: Don’t make assignment assumptions based on race—for example: black customers prefer black clerks. Make sure you’re distributing the work fairly and without regard to the race of the employee or the population being served.

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