Employers may believe they are aware of potential areas of concern for discrimination or harassment among different groups of employees. Their concerns often focus on race discrimination claims or national origin claims from employees who fall within minority groups commonly represented in the workplace. However, U.S. employers may have a blind spot for potential areas of discrimination or stereotyping between members of races or nationalities without a significant presence in a given community. This issue was highlighted in a new decision from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia).
In Alberti v. The Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, the plaintiff was a doctoral student from Switzerland at UVA who alleged that a supervising professor from Germany made a series of disparaging comments about Swiss people. The plaintiff was eventually dismissed from the doctoral program and sued, claiming national origin discrimination, harassment, and retaliation under Title VI and Title VII.
The legal issues involved in the Fourth Circuit’s affirmation of the lawsuit’s dismissal are not particularly novel. The court determined that the alleged comments about the Swiss were spread over a long period of time and were not proximate in time to the dismissal decision. The most interesting question raised by this decision was whether UVA was aware of or sensitized to potential stereotyping of Swiss people by some Germans.
Would a typical company’s HR staff be aware of such biases and treat jokes or comments directed at a Swiss employee as potentially violating their discrimination or harassment policies? Even if HR cannot be expected to understand every potential area of conflict among employees from different parts of the world, they should be trained and sensitized to address such issues once they arise. Alleged conduct involving a bias that may not be known to most Americans can still present potential legal issues for employers.
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