Warn managers: no ‘one-sided’ socializing

Supervisors may naturally feel more comfortable with employees from one gender or the other. But, as a new court ruling shows, it's important to counsel supervisors never to hold members of one sex to a different standard simply because of that comfort level or because they socialize more with those employees.

Supervisors can't let such relationships cloud their employment decisions. Make managers, particularly rookie managers, aware of the subtle messages of favoritism that they may not even realize they're sending to employees.

To avoid gender bias in promotions, review the implications of supervisors' choices. Ask questions if an obvious candidate seems to be passed over. Use a neutral party to conduct independent reviews of the manager's recommendation.

Recent case: When Paul Sacco, the most experienced employee in his department, applied for a promotion, he easily made the "best qualified" list. But when the job went to a female co-worker with less experience, Sacco sued, citing gender discrimination. He claimed that the department manager (a female) deliberately chose a woman because the manager had a history of socializing, both on and off the job, with female employees, while maintaining only a work association with male employees.

In an unpublished opinion, a federal appeals court sent the case to trial, saying that, while "socializing" can't, by itself, form the basis of a sex-bias lawsuit, showing a pattern of favoring one gender over another could. And Sacco could show three things that hinted at the manager's bias: 1) He was better qualified for the job; 2) A pattern of rejecting males for promotion; and 3) The manager let females socialize at work but asked males not to.