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Avoid needless reference to culture differences

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

There is a fine line between a rational discussion of cultural differences and stereotyping. If you are tempted to educate employees on appropriate workplace behavior, stick with a straightforward description of what behaviors you want to see, not how they differ from other cultural norms.

That way, you won’t risk being mis­­understood, as may have happened in the following case.

Recent case: Chrystie is from Viet­­nam and was originally hired as the executive assistant for the dean of the University of Texas School of Law. Things didn’t work out and the dean arranged to create a new position for Chrystie in the Continuing Legal Education Department. There, she was allowed to telework for two days per week.

Chrystie’s job description included this language:

Expected Employee Behavior and Demeanor: CLE employees were ex­­pected to treat everyone politely and with a friendly, interested, helpful, cheerful demeanor.… [I]t is important in American/Texas business culture to look at people when speaking to them and being spoken to—looking down, looking away, or facial expressions of disinterest, eye-rolling, boredom, or contempt are completely unacceptable.

Eventually, Chrystie was terminated after several disputes over her overall performance.

She sued, alleging race discrimination. She pointed to the job description as evidence that the School of Law held stereotypical views of Asian business culture.

The court said it was a close call. While the language could have been more carefully drafted, the behavioral expectations were spelled out and ascribed to Texan or American culture. Stand­­ing alone, this wasn’t enough to support a discrimination lawsuit. (Nguyen v. Uni­­ver­­sity of Texas School of Law, No. 13-50016, 5th Cir., 2013)

Final note: If you want to list behavioral expectations, do so without reference to any particular culture. Stick to business behavior.

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