Take ‘same race’ bias complaints seriously

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in Employment Law,Human Resources

Issue: Managers sometimes ignore bias claims when the "discriminator" and the "discriminatee" are from the same protected group.

Risk: Your organization is liable under bias claims regardless of who makes them.

Action: Remind managers to respond to all bias claims. Explain that the "same group" defense won't fly in court.

You wouldn't ignore a black employee's complaint that a white supervisor was discriminating against her, would you? And neither should you ignore a bias complaint from one member of a protected class against another member of that class, as the following cases show.

Recent case No. 1: A black waiter complained after his general manager, a lighter-skinned black man, made offensive comments about the darker color of the waiter's skin. After he threatened to take his complaints to corporate, he was fired. The waiter filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The company settled by agreeing to pay the waiter $40,000 and beef up its anti-bias policy and training. (Burch v. Applebee's International Inc., No. 1:02-CV-829)

Recent case No. 2: Shirley Bryant regularly wore a business suit to work, while her boss, also a black woman, often dressed in "Afrocentric" attire.

That style difference led to conflict: The boss accused Bryant of "wanting to be white." When Bryant applied for a transfer, she was fired for insubordination and replaced by a woman with dreadlocks. Bryant sued.

The company argued that federal race-bias laws didn't cover such black-against-black claims. But the court disagreed. (Bryant v. BEGIN Manage Program, E.D.N.Y., 2003)

The lesson: Make sure your anti-bias policy and training specifically ban discrimination because of a person's skin tone. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act not only bans discrimination based on a person's race, but also on the shade of his or her skin.

Note: Such so-called "color discrimination" cases like these are still rare, but they're increasing. The EEOC says color-bias complaints jumped more than 200 percent since the mid-90s (from 413 cases in 1994 to 1,382 in 2002).

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