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Black boss, white worker? Beware reverse bias

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Courts hold white employees who allege racial discrimination to a slightly higher standard than members of other protected classes. That’s because the legal system presumes that it would be an unusual employer that discriminates against the majority.

The higher standard is met if the white employee can show that the decision-maker is a member of another protected class. That is, if the white employee can show the boss who made the termination decision is black, he might have enough evidence to meet the higher proof requirement.

Recent case: Kathleen Leavey, who is white, worked as corporate counsel for Detroit, a city led by a black mayor. During a conference call between city officials and those of a local court in which the city had several pending cases, Leavey allegedly said the court was “ghetto,” starting work late and treating people poorly.

The judge in charge, who is black, complained to the mayor’s office. Leavey was then pressured to resign.

She sued, alleging reverse discrimination.

The court said because the mayor, the judge and her supervisor were all black, Leavey had met the first part of her burden of proof: She had shown that this might be the unusual employer that discriminates against the majority.

Fortunately for Detroit, the court dismissed the case on other grounds. Leavey couldn’t show that the city’s stated discharge reason—Leavey’s poor choice of words to describe the court—was merely an excuse to fire her because she was white. (Leavey v. City of Detroit, No. 10-2064, 6th Cir., 2012)

Final note: A legitimate discharge reason untainted by prejudice, retaliation or other illegal motivations is always the best defense to discrimination charges. Just make sure you can show that you would have fired any employee who engaged in the same misbehavior.

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