Confronting Racial Bias in the Workplace-How to Avoid Becoming the Next Hashtag Movement

Q.  How do I help my company avoid unconscious bias in the workplace?

A.  A bias is a prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group as compared with another. We all have biases. Biases can be based on any number of stereotypes, whether it is race, gender, age, national origin, religion, etc.  In a perfect world, individuals would not act on their biases, however, our world is far from perfect and employees can and do bring their biases to work.

When employees bring biases into the workplace, whether they are overt or subtle, the consequences can be damaging for the employer, especially in this social media age, when racial biases can and will be caught on camera and “go viral” almost instantly. A recent example of such racial biases resulting in racial profiling occurred in a Starbucks in Philadelphia on April 12, 2018, when two black men were arrested while waiting for a friend.  The police arrested the two men who, nine hours later, were released without being charged.  The arrest was videotaped by a bystander, who commented that the men did nothing wrong.  The incident resulted in protests in Philadelphia and a #boycottStarbucks hashtag that took on a trending life of its own.  Starbucks however, took swift action by terminating the store manager, apologizing to the two men, and announcing plans to close 8,000 U.S. locations for a day in May to provide a racial-bias education program.

A similar incident occurred recently at an LA Fitness facility in Secaucus, New Jersey, when three LA Fitness employees called the police on a black man, who was an active, paying member of the fitness club for no apparent reason, than believing that he did not belong there. LA Fitness immediately terminated the employees involved, issued a public apology and stated that it is exploring potential training content and opportunities to better train the staff.

Stories like these are not new, however, the platform to raise awareness of racial bias and profiling has expanded with social media. So the question remains, what can and should employers do to confront racial biases and avoid becoming the next #boycott{insert Company name} hashtag?

First and foremost, companies must educate, train, and re-train their employees. In industries that are open to the public, such as retail, for example, employers should regularly conduct racial bias training upon hiring as well as on an annual basis.  This is particularly important in industries with high turnover to ensure that all employees are receiving training.  To be most effective, the training should include real life scenarios that are applicable to the industry where employees can openly talk through how to handle certain issues.  Next, employers should make sure they have clearly defined policies on hand.  These policies should be reviewed during the training and be accessible for reference to all employees.

Even more important than having fair policies, employees must be taught how to consistently enforce such policies. For example, if a coffee shop has a policy that requires patrons to order food/coffee in order to use the internet, bathroom or remain on the premises (which Starbucks does not), this must be enforced by all stores and applied to all patrons, regardless of race, gender, national origin, etc.  If the company has concerns as to whether certain policies will be applied consistently, the most prudent approach is to discard that policy altogether.  Additionally, if a company enforces policies/restrictions regarding entering or remaining in a location open to the public, it should be clearly posted.

Even with the best training programs and clearest policies, a company may still end up on the wrong side of the racial bias equation. So what now?  What should a company do if one or more of their employees exhibits racial bias or profiling towards a customer or member of the public?  Even assuming that the incident does not “go viral,” employers should investigate any incident of alleged racial profiling, including reviewing any video footage and witness accounts.  If the allegations are confirmed, the employer must take corrective action.  In today’s society, there is a low tolerance for racial, ethnic or religious profiling, and failing to do anything other than termination (assuming the profiling is confirmed), could result in public backlash.  The response must be quick.  However, employers must balance the need for speed with the need to conduct a proper investigation.  Companies must also offer the individual who was the victim of profiling a sincere apology and consider including some type of monetary award, depending on the circumstances.  Additionally, employers should review their policies and take the opportunity to re-train employees and redistribute applicable policies.

Kali T. Wellington-James

Single Ageist Comment May Be Insufficient to Sustain Age Discrimination Claim

Q.  If a supervisor makes a comment about an employee’s age, will the company be liable for age discrimination?

A.  While ageist comments are never appropriate in the workplace, an Illinois federal court recently ruled that a single age-related comment was insufficient for an employee to prevail on an age discrimination claim.

In Maglieri v. Costco Wholesale Corp., No. 16-cv-7033 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 14, 2018), the plaintiff employee alleged, among other claims, discrimination and retaliation under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”). The 54-year old plaintiff worked in a Costco bakery and was directly supervised by a 57-year old manager. According to the plaintiff, the manager repeatedly yelled at her in a “nasty” and “intimidating” voice about working faster. But according to a co-worker, the manager was mean and abrasive to all subordinates and would sometimes yell to motivate employees. The co-worker also testified, however, that she once recalled the manager stating she was “kind of surprised that [Costco] didn’t hire someone younger” when plaintiff was hired. All of the plaintiff’s performance reviews reflected the manager’s concerns with plaintiff’s work speed.  However, plaintiff was not terminated or demoted and did not otherwise experience a change in her job duties.

The ADEA protects employees age 40 and above from age-based discrimination in the workplace. Employers may not discriminate against employees in any manner on the basis of age, and employers may not retaliate against employees who oppose any practices made unlawful by the ADEA. The plaintiff in this case alleged that she was the victim of both discrimination and retaliation.

In order to prove an age discrimination claim, plaintiff needed to show that her employer subjected her to an adverse employment action (such as termination, change in job duties, or a hostile work environment) because of her age. As the Court noted, “not everything that makes an employee unhappy is an actionable adverse action.” Although the manager’s yelling and alleged abrasiveness could present a Human Resources problem, merely being mean or raising one’s voice does not constitute a violation of the law.

The Court observed that plaintiff did not suffer termination or a change in job duties and also concluded that plaintiff was not the victim of an age-based hostile environment. According to the Court, it is not enough that an employee subjectively believes an employer’s conduct to be discriminatory. To prevail on a hostile environment claim, a plaintiff must show that the complained of behavior was both subjectively and objectively offensive. The evidence in this case showed that there was only one comment about age (the manager’s comment that she was surprised Costco did not hire someone younger). The Court found that “this sole age-based comment, which was not directed at [plaintiff] and did not contain any prejudiced views or derogatory slurs, is not enough to establish that [the manager] harassed [plaintiff] . . . because of [her] age.”

The Court concluded that the manager’s criticism about “slowness” and “lack of urgency,” were not a veiled way of harassing plaintiff about her age. While the ADEA prohibits employers from relying on age as a proxy for an employee’s work-related characteristics—such as productivity—the ADEA does not bar employers from focusing on the work-related characteristics themselves. According to the Court:  “Not completing work quickly enough is a legitimate workplace criticism.”

Employers should be aware that a single comment that is discriminatory on its face, such as a racial slur, could be sufficient to establish a hostile work environment.  In fact, courts have concluded that such singular comments are sufficient to bring a claim under various state and federal employment discrimination laws.

Although the employer in the above-referenced case managed to avoid liability, all employers would be well-served to conduct non-discrimination and anti-harassment training in the workplace that focuses not only on age-based discrimination and harassment but also on other forms of harassment based on sex, race, disability, and other protected traits. Pepper Hamilton’s Labor and Employment Practice Group can conduct anti-harassment training sessions for both your managers/supervisors and rank and file employees. Contact a Pepper Hamilton Labor and Employment attorney to discuss how we can tailor a training program to the needs of your workforce.

Lee Tankle

Circuit Split on Sexual Orientation Discrimination Continues With New Second Circuit Opinion

Q.  Is sexual orientation a protected category under federal discrimination laws?

A.  It depends on what Circuit you are located in.  On February 26, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (which exercises federal jurisdiction in Connecticut, New York, and Vermont), joined the Seventh Circuit (with jurisdiction over Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin) in holding that sexual orientation discrimination is prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Now there are two circuit court decisions ruling that sexual orientation is protected under Title VII.  These decisions conflict with at least one decision, of the Eleventh Circuit (with jurisdiction over Alabama, Florida and Georgia).

Many states and some cities and other municipalities have enacted laws that expressly and directly prohibit sexual orientation discrimination. There is, however, no federal law that directly outlaws this type of discrimination.  While we continue to wait for  Congress to act or the Supreme Court to take up a case for review, employers should consider treating sexual orientation as a protected class when making employment decisions and drafting employment policies.

For more details on this issue, click here.

Susan K. Lessack

 

Job Ads Distributed to Younger Recruits May Be Discriminatory

Q.  My company wants to target on-line recruitment ads for certain jobs to specific age groups. Is that legal?

A.  In most circumstances, the answer is no. Unless an employee’s age is a bona fide occupational qualification (i.e., hiring an applicant under a certain age is reasonably related to an essential operation of the business), a policy targeting recruits under an age limit likely will be considered age discrimination.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) states that, generally, it is unlawful for employment notices or advertisements to include age preferences, limitations, or specifications.  Thus, advertisements that state that the company is seeking applicants who are “age 25 to 35” or “recent college graduates,” for example, violate the ADEA. Employers also may not base hiring decisions on stereotypes about a person because of his or her age.  Likewise, an employer may not use an employment test that excludes older applicants unless the test is based on reasonable factors other than age.

But, what if, instead of soliciting a certain age group in the text of the advertisement, the company uses technology, such as micro-targeting, to limit the population receiving the job ad? In a recent class action case filed in Northern California, a group of plaintiffs claimed that such a practice also violated ADEA. The plaintiffs sued several large companies and a defendant class of “hundreds of major American employers and employment agencies,” claiming that the companies used Facebook’s ad platform to routinely exclude older workers from receiving their recruiting ads on Facebook, “thus denying older workers job opportunities.”  The lawsuit seeks to certify a class of older applicants who were excluded from receiving employment ads, and seeks injunctive and monetary relief for what it calls a pattern and practice of age discrimination.

The class action is in the early stages, and it will be interesting to see whether the court agrees with plaintiffs’ argument that using technology to limit the pool of applicants to certain age groups is discriminatory.  In the meantime, employers should take heed and avoid targeting younger recruits, both on the face of the job ads and by limiting the population receiving them, absent a bona fide occupational reason to do so.

–Tracey E. Diamond

AN EMPLOYER’S DUTY TO ACCOMMODATE NOT SO-COMMON RELIGIOUS PRACTICES

Q.  An employee has requested that the company give her an accommodation due to a religious practice I have never heard of. Do we have to comply with this request?

A.  Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees and applicants against religious discrimination and requires that an employer accommodate an individual’s religious practices unless doing so would create an undue hardship on the employer. Typically, employers are asked to accommodate more mainstream religions by way of scheduling accommodations or dress. However, lesser known religious practices also must be accommodated if the employee can establish a sincerely-held belief in the religious practice and that the accommodation would not impose an undue hardship on the company.

Recently, the United States District Court for Western District of Pennsylvania, as well as the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, have addressed accommodating the religious practice known as the “mark of the devil” or the “mark of the beast.” In both instances, the Courts held that the employee’s allegations were sufficient to establish a sincerely- held belief in the religious practice.

In Kaite v. Altoona Student Transp., Inc., the employee worked as a school bus driver and refused to have fingerprints taken because she believed that fingerprinting was the “mark of the devil” and if she submitted to it she would not get into heaven.  The employee asked for an accommodation in the form of a different type of background check that did not include fingerprinting.  The employer refused and terminated the employee’s employment for failing to comply with the State’s background check law.

The United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania rejected the employer’s attempt to dismiss the case, holding that, at least at the motion to dismiss stage, the employee had sufficiently alleged a prima facie case of religious discrimination.

To establish a prima face case, the employee must show: (1) she holds a sincere religious belief that conflicts with a job requirement; (2) she informed her employer of the conflict; and (3) she was disciplined for failing to comply with the conflicting requirement.  Once the employee establishes a prima facie case, the employer then has the burden to prove either that it reasonably accommodated the plaintiff or that it was unable to do so without “undue hardship.”  Here, the employee stated that (i) she had a sincere religious belief that being fingerprinted constituted the “mark of the devil” and would prevent her from going to heaven; (ii) this belief conflicted with her job requirement that she undergo a background check; (iii) the employer was aware of her sincerely-held religious belief; and (iv) the employee subsequently was terminated for failing to comply with the fingerprinting requirement. This was enough to overcome a motion to dismiss.

Similarly, in EEOC v. Consol Energy, Inc., the employer implemented a biometric hand-scanner system for the purpose of requiring employees to check in and out of work.  The employee refused to use the a scanner because of his religious belief that the use of the scanner was the “mark of the beast.”  The employer refused to accommodate the employee’s religious belief, although the employer accommodated others who could not use the hand scanner for non-religious purposes.  The EEOC brought suit on the employee’s behalf, which went to trial.  The jury returned a verdict for the employee totaling $586,860.00 ($150,000 in compensatory damages and $436,860.74 in front and back pay and lost benefits).  The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s ruling denying the employer’s motion for a new trial and motion for judgment.

Both of the cases illustrate an employer’s need to be tolerant in accommodating all religious practices, not only those that are considered more mainstream. Employers should remember that demonstrating a sincerely-held belief is typically a “low bar,” and most employees likely will be able to establish this element of their claim.

Moreover, these cases serve as a reminder that, when making determinations regarding accommodating religious practices, the company should:

  • Review whether it has made exceptions for non-religious reasons; and
  • Consider the actual hardship to the employer in accommodating the employee’s request.

Kali T. Wellington-James