Most employees would appreciate some advice when passed over for a promotion. How can I improve? What were the decision makers looking for? But when an employee was told to “be more Indian,” the court found the message to be clearly discriminatory.
A case of national origin stereotyping
In the recent Seventh Circuit case Hussain v. Federal Express Corp., a FedEx operations manager got some advice she was not expecting after she was turned down for a promotion. Shabi Hussain applied for a promotion to the senior manager position after working for the company for 15 years. She participated in an interview process along with several other applicants. According to FedEx, the hiring panel came up with “consensus scores” based on performance appraisal rankings, interpersonal skills, their own observations, and “fit” with other senior managers. Hussain was ranked third after the interview process. The man who received the promotion had significantly lower performance rankings than she did.
Feedback expressed national origin bias
The hiring manager invited the employees who were not selected for the position to obtain feedback so they could improve. Hussain accepted the invitation and was told, among other things, that she was too emotional, had inappropriate facial expressions and needed to “be more Indian.” Hussain, who is South Asian Indian, replied “I am Indian,” and the manager responded that she needed to “be more like an American Indian”—“stoic” and “expressionless.”
Internal complaint did not resolve the issue
After making an internal complaint about the manager’s comments, FedEx simply admonished him for his “lack of sensitivity.” FedEx went further to suggest to Hussain that she could “improve her interpersonal skills.” As a result, Hussain filed a Title VII discrimination lawsuit. The trial court initially dismissed her claims, finding that she was not qualified for the position because her interview score was lower than the person who was chosen.
The Seventh Circuit finds sufficient evidence of discriminatory bias
The Seventh Circuit disagreed with the trial court, finding there was indeed sufficient evidence that the decision to deny Hussain the promotion was motivated by national origin discrimination. Regardless of whether the hiring manager’s comments
referred to South Asian Indian or American Indian, they still constituted national origin stereotyping.
Possible interpretations of the biased comments
According to the decision of the Seventh Circuit, the hiring manager’s comments that Hussain should become “more Indian” or more “stoic like an American Indian” could reasonably be interpreted in two ways. A jury could find that in order to be promoted, Hussain needed to embody a trait stereotypically associated with a national origin (i.e., American Indian), which was different from hers. A jury could also find that the hiring manager wanted Hussain to reflect stereotypical features he envisioned in a person of Indian descent. Either way, the court found it to be evidence of impermissible bias, indicating that it was “hard to imagine a blunter application of national-origin stereotyping” than his advice to “be more Indian.”
If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination or retaliation, or if you have any questions regarding your employment rights, please contact Wrady & Michel, LLC, either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880.