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Use proactive measures to stop bias lawsuits

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,HR Management,Human Resources

Sometimes, all it takes to stop a potential lawsuit based on a supervisor’s poor behavior is a timely warning.

Take, for example, what might happen if a subordinate believed her supervisor was targeting her for poor treatment because of her race. If she goes to HR for help and the company ignores the problem, chances are the situation will escalate. But if HR takes a strong stance and persuades the supervisor to change her approach, then a potential lawsuit may dissolve into nothing.

Recent case: Dianna Helton, who is white, worked at a racetrack and casino handling cash wagers. She complained to HR that her supervisor favored another employee, who is black, when assigning shifts. As a result, Helton said, she never got the most desirable schedules. She also said the supervisor had sent her sharply worded and highly critical e-mails on a regular basis—and that the criticism was being leveled against her because of her race.

The HR professional handling the complaint met with the supervisor and persuaded her to treat all subordinates with respect. Shortly after, Helton got the schedule she wanted.

But then, after a cash shortage was discovered, the rumor mill pointed toward Helton. She quit because she believed her supervisor was blaming her for the loss. Eventually, Helton was exonerated.

Then she sued, alleging race discrimination and harassment.

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed Helton’s lawsuit, reasoning that nothing she experienced was offensive enough to create a racially hostile environment. Plus, after she complained, she got her preferred schedule. (Helton v. Southland Racing Corporation, No. 09-1674, 8th Cir., 2010)

Final note: One of the three circuit court judges dissented, saying Helton might still have a case: Being falsely accused of theft could have been retaliation for complaining. Helton can appeal.

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