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Barefoot, pregnant … and dragging you into court

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Issue: Even one offhand remark, if timed just right, can spell "discrimination."

Risk: Years of diligence in preventing discrimination among managers can go up in smoke instantly.

Action: Advise managers to hold off on the wisecracks when employees' emotions are high.

Typically, employees need to show some pattern of discriminatory comments or behavior to carry a sex discrimination charge in court. But, as the following case proves, one stray remark that occurs near the time of the alleged discrimination can spark a successful lawsuit.

Recent case: As a female plant inspector left a meeting where she was told she wouldn't be promoted, she allegedly overhead a supervisor saying that women should be kept "barefoot and pregnant." She sued for sex discrimination. A lower court tossed out the case, but the 7th Circuit Appeals Court let the case proceed to a jury. Such a comment is clearly derogatory toward working women, the court said, and suggests that the supervisor didn't want women in the workplace.

Ordinarily, such stray comments wouldn't necessarily support discrimination, but this set of remarks did, the court said, because they were "so close in time and substance" to the alleged act of discrimination. (Volovsek v. Wisconsin Dept. of Agriculture, No. 02-2074, 7th Cir., 2003)

Bottom line: Remind managers to speak professionally or don't speak at all. One stupid remark can cost the organization big bucks and cost them their jobs.

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