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Client gaffe doesn’t create employer liability

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Sometimes, customers or clients make inappropriate remarks.

How managers respond to those comments is important. Put on the spot, they may be at a loss for words. That may not be ideal, but it isn’t enough to create liability for the employer.

Recent case: Toni, who is white and over age 40, worked as a manager for a youth services agency. While voluntarily attending a weekend job fair at which her agency and another agency were represented, she struck up a conversation with her own supervisors and one from the other agency. That agency was essentially a client of Toni’s organization.

The other agency’s supervisor allegedly commented that Toni should not have come to the fair because she “did not want an old white lady in a suit doing recruiting.” Toni said one of her bosses smiled awkwardly, but said nothing. Toni then challenged the statement, asking, “Is that appropriate?” She asked whether they wanted another staffer—a much younger black woman—there instead. The other agency’s supervisor nodded affirmatively, according to Toni.

Six months later, Toni was fired, allegedly for poor performance. She sued, claiming the real reason was age and race discrimination.

Toni tried to introduce the “old white lady” comment as evidence. The court nixed her motion, concluding the statement didn’t show discrimination. At worst, it said, her supervisors’ failure to protest was regrettable and poor form. But their silence certainly wasn’t enough on which to base an entire lawsuit. (Bone v. G45 Youth Services, No. 11-2901, 8th Cir., 2012)

Final note: In an ideal world, Toni’s supervisors would have spoken up. Certainly, when a ­client or customer makes a biased statement, it’s best for someone in a position of authority to defend employees.

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