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Requirement that Employee Conform to American Business Culture Not Race Discrimination

    Client Alerts
  • October 18, 2013

Earlier this month in an unpublished opinion, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that directions to an Asian employee requiring that she follow accepted U.S. business practices and culture is not tantamount to race discrimination under Title VII. In Nguyen v. Univ. of Tex. Sch. of Law, the plaintiff was counseled regarding her need to follow "American/Texas business culture" in her work, including such things as maintaining eye contact during conversations, and not expressing distain or boredom when interacting with others. After being terminated for poor performance, the plaintiff sued, alleging that these instructions constituted race discrimination.

The plaintiff contended that she was the only employee presented with these instructions, and that they demonstrated stereotypical views of Asians in the workplace. The Fifth Circuit disagreed, affirming summary judgment for the university. The court noted that none of the cited business practices constituted a racially offensive stereotype. They were merely business practices that all employees were expected to observe. Factually, the plaintiff could not show that she was terminated for anything other than poor performance, or that non-Asian employees were treated more favorably than she.

While employers should not make assumptions about employees' capabilities or work habits based on race, they are entitled to establish behavioral and cultural norms unrelated to race, and to expect employees to adhere to their terms. An employee's unfamiliarity or failure to meet these standards due to cultural issues will not serve as grounds for a race or national origin discrimination claim under Title VII.