BY MINDY CHAPMAN, Esq.
Maybe a long, long time ago, in a far, far away place, folks used to tell women, “Oh, you can’t do that … it’s a man’s job.” Maybe the work was too heavy, muddy or risky? But welcome to 2009, where jobs are no longer classified by gender. Better check to make sure your hiring managers understand that, too!
Case in Point: Gloria Sims was a substitute lunchroom worker at an Alabama school when a full-time position opened.
Her boss, however, told her it was a “man’s job” because it involved lots of heavy lifting. Plus, he said, the school was looking to add “a little color” to the lunchroom, so it hired a black male candidate with a high school diploma.
Sims sued, alleging race and gender discrimination. The school argued that Sims didn’t hold a high school diploma, as required for the position. But Sims said the school didn’t consistently stick to that diploma requirement.
The result: The court sided with Sims and sent the case to trial, saying the repeated “man’s job” comments by the boss provided direct evidence of sex discrimination.
The court stated, “When a supervisor who plays a role in hiring states a preference for candidates of one sex, a reasonable jury could find that discriminatory animus infected the hiring decision.”
The court rejected the school’s argument that Sims wasn’t hired because of her lack of a high school diploma. In the past, the court noted, the school board had employed several lunchroom attendants who didn’t have high school diplomas. (Sims v. Coosa County Bd. of Educ., MD AL, 9/2/08)
3 lessons learned
1. Train everyone in the hiring process. Untrained supervisors can be dangerous hiring tools. As this case shows, dumb comments can land you in court.
2. Closely review employment requirements. Do you require applicants to hold an educational degree but have broken that rule in the past? If so, the courts will point to that inconsistency if you try to use it as a valid defense to reject an applicant.
3. Don’t speak in code. The boss said he needed “a little color” in the lunchroom. While a court may entertain the notion that the comment referred to the school’s décor, it’s more likely that a reasonable jury will realize that it’s related to race.