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Be prepared to answer the question: Are you biased, or is employee overly sensitive?

by on
in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Every once in a while, you’ll run across an employee who is hyper­­sensitive to any criticism. She may even attribute it to bias against a protected status like race or sex, instead of accepting advice offered in a legitimate effort to encourage improvement.

What follows is usually an internal complaint, triggering an HR investigation into discrimination allegations.

You know what happens after your investigation finds no wrongdoing: The employee takes it to the next level by filing an EEOC complaint.

Rest assured that if you investigated and took the complaint seriously, the EEOC investigator will be favorably impressed. The complaint will likely be dismissed as lacking merit. Even if the employee then sues, chances are a court will quickly toss out the case.

Recent case: Lisa Weatherby, who is black, was an operations manager for FedEx. She was one of just a few black women in that position and had been promoted into management after several successful years in nonsupervisory positions.

Weatherby had performance problems in her new role and received regular warnings that outlined her mis­­takes and what she needed to do to improve. Company rules stated that a third warning could result in termination.

When Weatherby received a third warning, she was told she had three choices: be suspended while looking for another less-demanding FedEx job, take an immediate demotion or keep her job and risk termination.

She filed an internal complaint, alleging sex and race discrimination.

HR investigated and concluded supervisors had followed all internal disciplinary rules and had not discriminated. When she received yet another warning after electing to keep her management job, she was terminated.

Weatherby then sued, alleging that she had been discriminated against.

In court, she alleged that two managers had purposely dropped her from a cellphone call. She also said when she returned to her management job instead of accepting a demotion, a manager gave her a look that she interpreted as racial. She cited an incident several years earlier in which a manager allegedly said women should work in the office, not in the company’s operational division.

The court tossed out Weatherby’s case. It said she offered no evidence that her race or sex had anything to do with her discipline or termination. The first two incidents she described weren’t even remotely objectively re­­lated to her race. The call may have dropped for reasons other than a de­­sire to end the conversation because of her race. The “look” wasn’t anything specific objectively either, but merely Weather­­by’s impression.

And the last incident, which was the oldest, was too remote in time to be connected to her termination even if offensive to female workers. (Weatherby v. Federal Express, No. 09-6036, 6th Cir., 2012)

Final note: Warn all supervisors against making any generalizations about the workforce. That means no comments about what jobs are appropriate for whom. Make it part of standard management training, as well as part of the evaluation process.

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