Innovative solutions to employee disputes can lead to workplace racial discrimination lawsuits

by on January 7, 2009 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Info Center

Did a distant transfer cause racial discrimination lawsuits?

“So I guess I’m getting a raise, too, to pay for the extra gas I’ll be burning?” customer service rep Tish Morganfield asked sarcastically.

“What do you mean?” asked HR manager Deb Drinkwater. “Nobody said anything about a raise.”

“You should have,” Tish went on, slapping a letter down on Deb’s desk. “This transfer to the Masonburg office is going to cost me money. It’s 20 miles farther from my house, and you know what gas prices are like.”

“Tish, you know why you’re being transferred. It says so in the letter,” Deb replied.

“The bad blood between you and Archie Hamilton has poisoned the atmosphere in this office,” she went on. “We tried everything to help you two get along and it didn’t work. We think this is the best answer. You keep your pay and benefits, and you’ll be doing the same work in Masonburg that you’ve been doing here.”

Expensive commute

“That’s OK on paper, but not in the real world,” Tish said. “Traffic on the Masonburg road is terrible at rush hour. This means an extra hour’s commute. And more child care expenses. Plus gas costs. Not to mention that I don’t know anybody in the Masonburg office. In fact, aren’t they all white over there? I think this is just an excuse for discrimination. If I were white, you wouldn’t be doing this.”

Deb frowned. “Archie is being transferred too. He’s white,” she said. “I’m sorry we can’t locate our offices exactly where it’s convenient for you.”

Tish glowered at her. “I’m not going to take this,” she said. “I won’t go.”

Tish didn’t report to her new office, and the company fired her. She filed a racial discrimination lawsuit.

Did she win?

No. Tish lost. The court said a transfer farther from her home wasn’t by itself an adverse employment action. Without any adverse action, Tish had no case for racial discrimination in the workplace.

Because Tish’s pay, benefits, title, and duties would be the same at her new office, the transfer was a lateral one, not a demotion. The new location might have been less convenient, but mere inconvenience wasn’t enough to sustain racial discrimination lawsuits.

Employees might be able to prove racial discrimination lawsuits in a transfer if, when they got to the new office, they found poor conditions, the court said.

But Tish didn’t report to her new location.

A transfer can be an effective tool in the HR practitioner’s kit. It’s a way to keep valuable employees from butting heads without resorting to more extreme measures. As long as the transfer isn’t a disguised demotion or punishment, but leaves the employee’s conditions of service substantially the same, you’ll be able to defend it if you have to in racial discrimination lawsuits.

When separating feuding employees, consider transferring both of them. The court noted that Tish’s white colleague Archie was also transferred farther away from his home.

Cite: Wood v. Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles Commission, No. 3:04-CV-077 RM, N.D. Ind., 4/22/05. Fictionalized for dramatic effect

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