Before you’re sued: Check for bias patterns

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Hiring,Human Resources

Do you regularly audit your HR records for signs of hidden bias? Would you know if members of a particular protected class were getting fewer promotions than others?

The start of the new year is the perfect time to identify and correct any problems. Do it now, before one unhappy former employee makes a federal class action out of a problem you never saw coming.

Recent case: Guy, who is black, worked for a Panera Bread restaurant. He contends he was turned down for promotion because of his race. He also claims he was informed by a supervisor that the company had an unwritten policy against employees who were “fat, black or ugly” being visible to customers or earning promotions.

He quit and sued, seeking to represent himself and all other similarly situated black Panera Bread employees (though apparently not the “fat” and “ugly” ones, who aren’t protected from discrimination).

The court brokered a settlement in which the company didn’t admit to any discrimination. However, Panera Bread agreed to pay an extra 70 cents per hour for each hour worked in the previous year to every black employee who hadn’t been promoted following a one-year waiting period. In other words, rather than counter the allegations, Panera opted to settle the case.

The court has now authorized notices to appear in major news publications and through direct mail seeking out black class mem­­bers who are eligible for the settlement money. (Vines v. Covelli Enterprises, No. 12-0028, WD PA, 2012)

Final note: Remember, it takes just one unhappy applicant or former employee to start a class-action lawsuit. Your best bet is to be proactive. Make sure you can show there’s no disparity in how you treat any group, especially a protected class. Do this by routinely analyzing hiring, promotion and discipline decisions.

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