HR News Update

Reverse Religious Discrimination Nets Worker $6.5 Million

Religious discrimination lawsuits typically involve situations where an employee was refused an accommodation, such as time off, for religious purposes, or discriminated against because of their particular religious beliefs or practices. But a recent case in which an employee won a multimillion-dollar verdict from a Sacramento jury puts a different spin on the problem of religious bias. In this case, Noyes v. Kelly Services, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Calif.), the employee claimed she was disadvantaged because her supervisor favored other employees who belonged to the same religious group as the supervisor. Here's a look at what happened, along with tips and tactics for sidestepping reverse bias charges.

A woman was a permanent employee at Kelly Services, a temp agency, in Nevada City (Northern California). Her manager belonged to the Fellowship of Friends, a religious organization. The woman applied for a promotion to a manager position, but she was turned down and the promotion went to a co-worker, who also happened to be a Fellowship of Friends member. The woman had worked at Kelly 6 years longer than the co-worker and held a master's degree in business administration, which the co-worker lacked. The manager had final decision-making authority for this promotion, but had input from other managers.

The woman filed a lawsuit charging reverse religious discrimination under the California and federal anti-bias laws. She pointed to the manager's alleged favoritism toward the co-worker and alleged that four of five recent management promotions in her office went to Fellowship members. She also alleged that the manager told other managers involved in the promotion process that she wasn't interested in becoming a manager, even though she was.

The lawsuit went up to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled last year that the case should go to a jury in light of evidence that Kelly's proffered reasons for rejecting the woman were a pretext for religious discrimination. The 9th Circuit relied on evidence showing that (1) although Kelly Services argued that the promotion decision was consensus-based, the other managers couldn't recall reaching a consensus, and one stated that the manager ultimately made the decision; (2) His actions prevented full consideration of the woman for the job by the other managers; (3) He favored Fellowship members and the co-worker in particular (for example, paying the co-worker a higher salary for the same job she held and frequently hiring Fellowship members as temporary contractors and giving them management jobs).

Now, a federal jury in Sacramento has concluded that the woman was passed over for promotion because she lacked certain religious beliefs held by her supervisor. The jury awarded her $647,000 for economic and noneconomic losses, plus a staggering $5.9 million in punitive damages.

Tactics for Avoiding Similar Lawsuits

This verdict sends a strong message about the dangers of workplace favoritism based on religion or another protected category. Here are some tactics for avoiding similar problems:

-         Have clear policies to govern how promotion and hiring decisions are made.

-         Make sure the promotion selection process includes oversight and review by upper management and/or human resources.

Provide training for managers on the policies and procedures governing promotions.


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