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Bias alert: Beware positive stereotypes, too

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Typically, employees who file discrimination cases try to show that their employers treated them poorly because of preconceived notions about members of their protected class. Thus, a 60-year-old may claim that an employer’s stereotypical view that older workers slow down or lose their skills led to an adverse employment action such as termination.

But stereotypes that at first blush seem positive can also be the basis for a bias claim, as this recent case shows.

Recent case: Valerie Taylor was hired as a salesperson for temporary heating and cooling systems used during construction projects. After six months on the job, she got great reviews. Then she was in a car accident and missed almost a year of work.

When she returned, she was assigned to an entirely different territory. That meant she had to drive farther. Plus, she was expected to develop her own client list—something she never had to do before.

Taylor complained to her supervisor about the new conditions. But he told her she shouldn’t have any trouble with the new position because women have an easier time developing clients and customers than men. Then, when her sales prowess didn’t live up to her supervisor’s expectations, Taylor was fired.

She sued, alleging sex discrimination.

Her former employer argued she had no case because what her supervisor said was a positive thing, not a negative stereotype about the abilities of women.

The court disagreed and ordered a trial. It said that relying on stereotypes about gender is the crux of sex discrimination, not whether those stereotypes are positive or negative. Because the supervisor believed women naturally develop relationships better, he denied her access to tools—such as a customer list—that male salespeople received. That contributed to her failure and could therefore serve as the basis for a successful sex discrimination claim. (Taylor v. Temp-Air, No. 09-C-5533, ND IL, 2010)

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