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Remind managers to steer clear of discrimination by association

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

The next time you conduct discrimination training, remind supervisors that discriminating against employees because of their spouses’ protected characteristics can be just as legally dangerous as direct discrimination against the employees themselves.

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

Recent case: Walter Roule (not his real name) works for the CIA as a clandestine officer 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. He said the supervisor put him on 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. But that, Roule said, caused his supervisor to revoke his secret clearance and essentially try to ruin his covert career.

When nothing was done about his allegations internally, Roule 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 sent the case 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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