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Remind bosses: No comments about ethnicity

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Firing,Human Resources

There are some things supervisors just shouldn’t say even in jest—including anything concerning race, national origin or any other protected characteristic. Comments on those topics regularly come back to haunt employers when employees file discrimination lawsuits.

Recent case: Vicente, who was born in Honduras and whose parents were from Honduras and Spain, sold telecom equipment for T-Mobile USA. He exceeded his sales quotas, received good reviews and was praised as a high-performing salesman.

His supervisor, however, had a penchant for criticism. He was overheard calling Vicente a “hot-headed Latino” and a “beaner,” a slang term for Hispanics of Mexican heritage. The supervisor also referred to himself and Vicente as “Shrek and Donkey,” an apparent allusion to the popular cartoon characters.

On another occasion, the supervisor told Vicente that his emails had a “flowery European writing style” and that he should “write like an American.”

Vicente later testified that he tolerated the behavior because he didn’t want to “come across as a whiner.” He said he felt compelled to project a personality consistent with what he had been taught in sales training—as someone “comfortable and very easy to be around.”

Vicente was fired after, at another supervisor’s urging, submitting an order from a customer who had not yet signed the contract. A non-Hispanic co-worker also participated in the deal. The supervisor and Vicente were terminated for breaking company rules on order submissions, while the white co-worker was not.

Vicente sued, and the court held that his lawsuit could go forward based on discriminatory firing. The court said the comments Vicente endured were potential evidence that the supervisor who recommended termination may have been motivated by discrimination against Hispanics. (Piedi v. T-Mobile USA, No. 3:11-Cv-180, WD NC, 2012)

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