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Ferret out bias: Ask supervisor whether he’s reported all similar incidents

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You probably rely on your supervisors and managers to give you all the relevant information before you make a disciplinary decision. But what if they don’t? If you don’t ask the right questions, you may inadvertently approve what ends up being a discriminatory action.

Here’s how it can happen: A supervisor favors some employees over others—perhaps harboring ill will toward members of a protected class. That supervisor then decides to “throw the book” at a less-favored subordinate by reporting rule violations—violations that he ignores when others commit them. Unless you know this, you could inadvertently sanction a discriminatory action.

Recent case:
Ronald Madden, who is black, set off a firecracker at work. His supervisor reported him to the main office, and Madden was fired for breaking safety rules.

The trouble was, lots of white employees also set off firecrackers and the same supervisor never reported them. Because the managers at the main office never asked about other firecracker incidents, they didn’t know that the supervisor favored white employees who blasted firecrackers.

A federal judge said the company discriminated based on race and ordered it to pay Madden more than $52,000 in damages. The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision. (Madden v. Chattanooga City Wide Services Department, No. 08-5082, 6th Cir., 2008)

Final note:
Don’t rely solely on supervisors. Ask around: Is there any disparity in how employees are treated? An anonymous employee survey is one possible tool to ferret out discrimination.

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