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Warn bosses: No ‘association discrimination’

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

The next time you conduct discrimination training, remind supervisors and managers that discriminating against an employee because of a spouse’s protected characteristic is just as illegal as direct discrimination.

That’s what one federal agency has learned the hard way.

Recent case: Walter Roule (not his real name) works for the CIA as a clandestine officer in what he calls a hybrid position in California. He is white and is married to a woman of Asian origin and Taiwanese nationality.

Roule alleges that beginning in 2006, his supervisor began harassing him because of his wife’s national origin and race.

Roule says the supervisor put him on “double secret probation” and took away his secure communications equipment. Then, instead of being sent overseas, Roule was assigned a second stateside tour. Roule filed an internal complaint with the CIA.

After doing so, Roule alleged, his supervisor revoked his secret clearance and essentially tried to ruin his covert career. When nothing was done about his allegations, he sued in federal court.

The CIA asked the court to dismiss the case, claiming that even if it were true that the supervisor discriminated against Roule because he was married to a foreign national, that wasn’t covered by Title VII.

The court disagreed and said the case could go to trial. (Roule v. Petraeus, No. C-10-04632, ND CA, 2011)

Final note: Courts are growing more sensitive to discrimination based on relationships and asso­ciation, especially in sensitive areas like marriage and close family re­­lationships. This is broadly known as “association discrimination.”

Punishing someone because of who he or she associates with doesn’t pass the smell test. Yet many managers and supervisors don’t realize it is illegal. Educate them.

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