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Spot supervisors’ hidden bias by monitoring daily stream of info flowing into HR

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training

Is a tendency toward discrimination hiding within your management ranks? If so, you may be courting real trouble. You need to ferret it out as soon as possible.

But how? Obviously, few supervisors will openly advertise their bias. But you may be able to spot it in the reams of information that routinely flows into HR. First and most obvious are employee complaints. But you probably already investigate those carefully.

Another tactic is to look at each supervisor’s subordinate staff. Do the applicants those supervisors recommend for promotion reflect the local or regional workforce in terms of race, gender and other protected characteristics? Or does a supervisor frequently recommend applicants who share the supervisor’s characteristics? Is that true for the supervisor’s colleagues? Any of those can be a red flag indicating a real problem.

Recent case: Archie Thompson worked as the first and only black full-time paramedic in the Southern Illinois Regional Emergency Medical System. The emergency coordinator, Paula Bierman, was responsible for managing the paramedics and making recommendations on their discipline to the system’s medical director, Dr. Daniel Doolittle.

Thompson responded to a medical emergency called in by a woman with diabetes. He tested her blood sugar level and administered the appropriate dose of dextrose to revive her. Once she recovered, the woman told Thompson to leave and refused further assistance. He did.

When Thompson returned to the station, he was asked whether, before leaving the scene, he had called in to report the patient had refused further treatment. He was informed that such a call had been the protocol for some time.

When Bierman learned Thompson had failed to follow the protocol, she discovered that several white paramedics had also deviated from the call-in policy. Apparently the rule wasn’t widely known.

Still, she called Doolittle and recommended placing Thompson on probation. When Doolittle asked if other paramedics had made the same mistake, Bierman told him they hadn’t, even though she knew that wasn’t true. Doolittle then accepted her probation recommendation for Thompson.

Thompson eventually sued, alleging race discrimination.

He explained to the jury that he was the only black paramedic, and that Bierman had told him black paramedics were restricted in what they could do. He also said Bierman had once said that he wasn’t invited to a party at her house because she feared that her neighbors wouldn’t approve of seeing a black man in the neighborhood. Co-workers also testified that Bierman had refused to hire a mixed-race paramedic because of race.

It was all enough for the jury to conclude that Bierman was biased and that bias influenced Doolittle’s decision to place Thompson on probation. It awarded Thompson $500,000 even though he did not lose any pay or benefits during the probation.

The Emergency Medical System appealed, but the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals said it was responsible for the biased supervisor’s recommendation. It did reduce the award to $250,000—still a high price to pay for a supervisor’s fairly obvious bias. (Thompson v. Memorial Hospital, et al., No. 07-2249, 7th Cir., 2010)

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