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On race, the customer isn’t always right

by on
in Hiring,Human Resources

When it comes to whom you employ, pay no attention to your customers’ preferences if they lead you to make illegal decisions. Simply put, employers can’t consider what race or ethnicity their customers or clients would prefer when making hiring decisions. That would be discrimination.

Recent case:
Barbara Pleener, who is white, sued for discrimination when she lost her job as a school principal. She said the school district capitulated to parents who wanted a black principal for their children. She said this was the same as allowing customers’ racial bias to dictate who was hired.

The school district countered with evidence that the real reason wasn’t that the parents wanted a black principal (even though one eventually was hired to replace Pleener). Instead, it presented evidence from several public meetings that showed the parents were upset because Pleener had lobbied to terminate a popular black assistant principal for alleged insubordination. The district noted that Pleener had a worse record of insubordination than the assistant principal did.

The court sided with the district, convinced that Pleener was fired not because of parental preference, but because she had been unable to manage the school effectively. (Pleener v. New York City Board of Education, No. 07-4898, 2nd Cir., 2009)

Final note: There are very few circumstances in which customer or client preference is a valid reason to hire or fire someone. Limited exceptions include situations where there is a bona fide occupational qualification at work such as in modeling (preference for a certain size or sex, but not race or national origin) and acting (sex and possibly race if the role calls for a certain race).

Make sure the decision also passes the more informal “smell” test. And be prepared for a challenge. Consider that men have recently sued to work as Hooters servers.

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