Typically, employees who file discrimination lawsuits try to show they were treated poorly because of preconceived notions about their protected category (age, religion, sex, disability status, etc.).
For example, a 60-year-old may claim that his supervisor’s stereotypical view that older workers are slow led to his firing.
But be aware of this twist: Stereotypes that seem positive at first blush can also be the basis for discrimination claims.
Recent case: Valerie Taylor, a sales rep for a heating and cooling company, missed almost a year of work recovering from a car accident. Upon her return, she was assigned to a different territory, meaning she had to drive farther. Plus, she was expected to develop her own client list—something she never had to do before.
Taylor complained. Her boss told her she shouldn’t have any trouble because women have an easier time developing clients than men do.
When her sales prowess didn’t measure up, Taylor was fired. She sued, alleging sex discrimination.
She has no case, the company argued, because her supervisor’s comment 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 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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