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Managers: Never presume ‘What’s best’ for employees

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Few things spur a discrimination suit as fast as a manager’s misplaced paternalistic comment. Remind supervisors that employees should choose for themselves what promotion or training opportunities they want to pursue. Presumptions about what they might prefer or would be comfortable doing don’t belong in the workplace.

Recent case: Eric Simple, who is black, worked as an assistant manager for a Walgreens drug store and let it be known that he wanted to pursue a promotion to store manager, especially if a store in a prosperous neighborhood opened up. Managers’ compensation is based in part on their store’s profitability, and stores in relatively affluent areas tend to be more profitable and have fewer theft problems.

But the company passed over Simple for an opening at one such store, and a manager commented that the area was not ready “to have a black manager, it is well-known in this area that some of the smaller, outlying towns have some very racist tendencies, and I was simply trying to make [Simple] feel better because … he may not have been happy working there.”

After Simple sued, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals said those remarks constituted enough evidence of possible discrimination to order a jury trial. The court said the manager’s comment that Simple “would not feel ‘happy’ among … white racists, which is a standard euphemism for refusing a job to someone of a different race from the people he would be associated with …. Racial segregation is obviously a form of racial discrimination.” (Simple v. Walgreen Company, No. 06-3990, 7th Cir., 2007)

Final note: Let employees decide what openings they want to pursue.

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