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Beat bias suits with good business reasons

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

It’s critical to base every employment-related decision on sound business reasons. It’s the only way to protect against lawsuits from employees who blame discrimination for every problem at work.

Based on past experience with bias, members of protected groups may feel justified in believing that recent slights were caused by prejudice. For­­­­tu­­nately, it takes more than a “gut feeling” that one is being discriminated against to get a lawsuit past the initial stages.

Recent case: Danita Pharr, who is black, applied for an accounting job at a startup company. She got a position as an accounting manager after being warned that the accounts receivable files were a mess.

As the company grew rapidly, it began hiring more staff, including a chief financial officer and an accounting clerk. The CFO almost immediately began complaining that Pharr wasn’t doing enough basic accounting work, such as reconciling bank statements. He assigned those tasks to the clerk and recommended that Pharr’s position be eliminated to save money now that the department was staffed up. He proposed that he would do the rest of the work Pharr had been doing.

Pharr sued, alleging race discrimination.

She couldn’t point to any specific examples where race was a factor. However, she told the court that she knew she had been discriminated against because she was black, referencing her “gut feelings.”

The court quickly dismissed the case when it became apparent that she had nothing except her hunch to prove discrimination. (Pharr v. Designline USA, No. 3:11-CV-162, WD NC, 2012)

Final note: You can’t prevent every lawsuit, but you can make sure you base every HR decision on sound business judgment. Document decisions at the time you make them, including a clear explanation of why the move was necessary.

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