Employers of all sizes and in all industries are striving to bring diversity to their workforces, including at the management level. Employers would be well-served, however, not to lose sight of the fact that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which governs discrimination in employment, protects all employees from discrimination on the basis of their race (or other protected classification)—including white males. A North Carolina jury sent this message loudly and clearly in a recently decided case.
Novant Health is a Winston-Salem-based network of clinics and medical centers. A white male former Senior Vice President of Marketing and Communications claimed that he was discriminated against when he was replaced by a black woman and a white woman as part of his employer’s diversity efforts. Racial discrimination claims by white employees, and gender discrimination claims by male employees, often are referred to colloquially (and somewhat dismissively) as “reverse” discrimination claims because the civil rights laws were enacted at a time when women and minorities primarily were suffering from discrimination. Nevertheless, the laws themselves are written in neutral terms—they prohibit employers from discriminating against any applicant or employee “because of” race, gender, or other immutable characteristics. Therefore, if an employer fires an employee “because of” his white race and male gender, then the employer has violated the discrimination laws.
That is precisely the conclusion that the North Carolina jury reached in the case brought against Novant Health. The price tag for this violation was not cheap. The jury awarded the white male management employee $10 million.
Employers should not be lulled into a false belief that because replacing a white employee with a non-white employee or a male executive with a female executive may bring them closer to their goal of increasing diversity, they are immune from a Title VII employment discrimination claim. Ultimately, if the replaced male or white employee can prove that they would not have been terminated but for their race or gender, they can successfully pursue a Title VII discrimination claim, potentially with very expensive consequences to the well-meaning employer. The lesson should be an obvious one, but in today’s cultural climate it bears repeating. Employers should make employment decisions based on merit, and they should apply objective standards relating to qualifications and performance. Employment decisions should not be based on an individual’s immutable classifications protected by law—which means neither deciding against nor in favor of any candidate or employee based on their race, sex, sexual orientation, or other protected classification.
If you are an employer that is planning a personnel decision and are concerned that it may result in exposure to an employment discrimination claim, or if you have received an EEOC charge or have been sued for alleged employment discrimination, the experienced lawyers at Luchansky Law are ready to help. We can be reached at (410) 522-1020 or at www.employmentattorneymd.com.