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Appearances do count: Check for hidden bias in terminations

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Employment Law,Firing,Hiring,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers

Before making a final decision on a reorganization or series of RIF terminations, take a close look at any characteristics the employees losing their jobs might share. A set of terminations that affects only members of a protected class is sure to attract attention—and you will have to explain to a jury that it’s just coincidence. That might be a tough sell because appearances count.

Recent case: Vijay Kumar and Badri Narayan are both of Indian national origin. They worked for many years in leadership positions at Renewal Inc., a Pittsburgh company that provides rehabilitation services for former offenders. Kumar was even one of five finalists to fill the CEO position shortly before he was terminated.

The candidate selected for the CEO job was not of Indian origin, and he almost immediately demoted Kumar and cut his pay by $50,000. Then, the CEO persuaded the board of directors to fire Kumar. He also talked the board into eliminating a department by outsourcing it. Four employees lost their jobs in that move, including Narayan, another employee of Indian origin and two white employees. But a company Renewal had hired to do the outsourced work hired the white employees.

As if firing three employees of Indian national origin while essentially rehiring the white employees didn’t look bad enough, the CEO then began contacting clients of a consulting firm Kumar started after being fired. Renewal’s CEO falsely told them Kumar was selling stolen software.

Kumar and Narayan sued, alleging national-origin discrimination and retaliation. The federal court considering their case refused Renewal’s motion to dismiss it.

The court said there was enough evidence to send the case to a jury, which will decide whether it was just coincidence that the only employees who were effectively terminated were of Indian national origin—or whether the company discriminated against them. (Kumar & Narayan v. Renewal, Inc., No. 06-1279, WD PA, 2008)

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