National origin discrimination lawsuits: An employers' minefield?

by on January 5, 2009 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Info Center

Management was surprised by the charge of national origin discrimination

In these sensitive times, you may have to go out of your way to avoid a national origin lawsuit. As previously blogged, they’re on the rise.

Here’s a case where a management decision that seemed like a no-brainer that provoked a national origin lawsuit.

Facts of the case

Liberia-born Bartholemew Toe worked as a guard at the front desk of a furniture retailer.

Frustrated by Toe’s difficulty in communicating with customers who asked him questions, the store instructed its security contractor to reassign him to a zone where he would have less public contact.

Toe complained to the EEOC, which, to the great surprise of company management, filed a lawsuit claiming that the reassignment deprived Toe of equal employment opportunities.

In court, the company argued that Toe’s inability to communicate, not his nationality, was the reason for the reassignment. He had a thick accent, they said, and almost no one understood him. That wasn’t being prejudiced. It was simply being practical.

Company management claimed it wasn’t even aware of Toe’s nationality – which is entirely likely because he worked for a security contractor, not for the store itself.

Eventually, the employer settled: it paid Toe $10,000 and promised not to discriminate against workers or contractors based on national origin.

Be prepared: If someone’s accent detracts from their ability to communicate, document the complaints carefully and show that the employee couldn’t perform the basic functions of the job – such as communicating with customers.

Cite: EEOC v. FurnitureLand South.

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