Don’t sweat it: Small slights don’t equal bias

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Overly sensitive employees can be quick to perceive “discrimination.” They may look at others’ actions as hostile, based on past experiences elsewhere. But that doesn’t mean a court will agree and punish an employer that hasn’t discriminated.

Reality: It takes more than a few slights to make a winning discrimination case.

Recent case: Herbert Blackmon, who is black, worked for the city of Chicago as a building inspector. He and other inspectors shared office space and computer stations. There were only 10 computers, so inspectors had to take turns. The computer stations were separated by a divider, with five on each side.

Blackmon noticed that Hispanic and white inspectors almost always sat on one side and black employees used the other side, along with a few white inspectors. When a white inspector allegedly told Blackmon he belonged on the other side, Blackmon saw racial discrimination and complained.

Blackmon was offered a transfer and took it. But his new supervisor found fault with his work and sometimes yelled at him. Even­tually, Blackmon was terminated for allegedly poor performance.

He sued, alleging he was the victim of race discrimination.

The court didn’t buy it. The judge reasoned that the computer stations weren’t segregated by any action on the city’s part, if at all. Plus, being yelled at by one’s supervisor may be unpleasant, but it doesn’t constitute race discrimination by itself. (Blackmon v. City of Chicago, No. 10-C-251, ND IL, 2011)

Final note: Employees aren’t entitled to a perfect workplace. Of course, you can strive for a civil, conflict-free environment. Fix ob­vious problems before they escalate and train super­visors on effective discipline and leadership.

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