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Beware behavior that ‘poisons the well,’ spawns discrimination lawsuits

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training

Poor attitudes among managers and supervisors can infect the rest of an organization, and courts are becoming more aware of the adverse effects of such so-called “poisoned wells.”

As the following case shows, when higher-ups in the organizational hierarchy display signs of discrimination, those lower down may act on those signs.

Recent case:
Donald Brown was 56 years old when he signed up for a four-year apprentice program to become a cable splicer. Throughout his training, he heard comments about his age from other apprentices and supervisors. He also heard a rumor that he was never going to be allowed to pass the key exam required for graduation, even though he had no trouble learning the skills being taught. Lo and behold, he didn’t pass the test.

He sued, alleging that those who were assigned to work with him on the practical exam were sabotaging him, believing that management wanted him to fail. Brown argued that all the workers reflected management’s bias against older apprentices and thus saw flaws that they would have ignored in younger test-takers.

The court called this the poisoned well. The court ordered a jury trial to determine whether age discrimination was the reason Brown didn’t pass. (Brown v. Detroit Edison, No. 06-11736, ED MI, 2009)

Final note:
Of course, if this had been an objective test that didn’t require subjective input from others, there would have been no problem, as long as the test was well designed and valid.

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