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If reorg cuts jobs, check for inadvertent bias

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Is your organization planning big changes that could result in layoffs? You may have no choice. But a poorly planned and implemented layoff can cost more than it saves if it invites lawsuits.

That’s why it’s important to check for potential race bias or other discrimination before making final decisions. Then carefully document the underlying nondiscriminatory reasons in case a lawsuit is filed.

Recent case: The city of Houston employed a large number of planners during a go-go decade of growth years and rapid development. When budgets got tight, the city embarked on a reorganization designed to eliminate duplicate functions and positions. It concluded it should terminate four senior planners on the basis of deficient skills rather than lack of tenure. The city decided to retain other planners who had more training and education.

All four terminated planners were born in Africa. Three were eventually rehired for other positions. Not rehired was Benneth Okpala, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Nigeria.

He sued, alleging discrimination based on his national origin.

Okpala pointed out that all four terminated planners were from Africa, while the retained planner group included just one African, two African-Americans, an Indian and one white male.

The court looked carefully at how the city claimed it made the termination decision for each African male and each retained planner. It found the reasoning solid and tossed Okpala’s case. Without the documentation, the case might have turned out very differently. (Okpala v. City of Houston, No. 10-20175, 5th Cir., 2010)

Final note: Documentation is the key to winning lawsuits. Courts don’t like to second-guess business decisions. Give them a reason to toss out the case by explaining exactly why you considered some employees more valuable than others.

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