Beware lawsuits when top brass spouts bias

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Firing,Human Resources

When those at the top of the organizational chart make racist and other offensive comments, trouble is sure to follow. Not only do slurs often bring negative publicity, but they also taint otherwise independent employment decisions.

That’s why HR professionals must sometimes have the courage to “speak truth to power,” warning about the consequences of offensive acts and speech.

Recent case: Gary, who is black, worked for the city of Toledo as a manager for about a year until he was fired during a downsizing. Soon after being hired, he discovered that a subordinate and his predecessor, both white, earned more than he did. He complained to Toledo’s affirmative action director, who conducted a salary survey that supported Gary’s claims. Still, he got no raise.

Instead, he was terminated during the reduction in force and replaced by a white manager within months. Gary sued, alleging race discrimi­nation.

As proof, he cited racially charged comments attributed to Toledo’s mayor, including calling black employees lazy and saying black men and women lacked child­­rear­­ing skills. The mayor also allegedly said he was glad he hadn’t been “raised poor and black” and often refused to let black em­­ployees leave large meetings to use the restroom while white employees were never challenged on leaving.

The city argued that no one di­­rectly involved in firing Gary had made any racist comments.

That didn’t matter to the court. It said the comments by the person who runs an organization can logically taint the entire work­­place and every employment decision made lower down. (Grif­­fin, et al., v. Finkbeiner, et al., No. 10-3659, 6th Cir., 2012)

Final note: If this case left you dreading the prospect of confronting superiors, then the court has proven its point. If you fear speaking up, then other managers probably do, too.

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