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Beware bias based on employee’s tribal status

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

A court has decided employees can sue employers for national-origin discrimination based on an unexpected characteristic: the employee’s tribal affiliation. National-origin discrimination lawsuits are usually based on being from a particular country, but belonging to a specific tribe can count, too.

Recent case: Leonard was born in Nigeria, and is a member of the Igbo tribe. He was a professor at St. Cloud State University, earning a salary within a broad range set by the university system.

One of the university officials who played a part in hiring Leonard and setting his salary is also a Nigerian man. However, he is a member of the Yoruba tribe.

Leonard learned that other professors earned considerably more. He sued, alleging race and national-origin discrimination.

The university countered that because other Nigerian professors earned more than Leonard, it couldn’t have discriminated on the basis of national origin. Plus, it said Leonard hadn’t negotiated a higher salary, while others had.

After the lawsuit was well under way, Leonard tried to add tribal affiliation as an example of national-origin discrimination. He reasoned that the other Nigerian professors negotiated more money because they belonged to the Yoruba tribe, like the Nigerian official who participated in Leonard’s hiring.

The court refused to consider that claim because Leonard brought it up too late. But it did say that tribal discrimination may be national-origin discrimination. (Onyiah v. St. Cloud State University, et al., No. 11-2294, 8th Cir., 2012)

Final note: Tribal-affiliation discrimination may fly under the radar of many HR professionals. For example, would you be able to recognize discrimination based on the caste status of a subordinate from India who is supervised by another Indian?

Closer to home, would it be obvious that a member of the Lakota tribe was discriminating against a Native American from another tribe?

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