It's been 70 years since World War II ended, but apparently there are
some out there who still don't like Germans. Everybody is entitled
to an opinion, but when one's prejudices are expressed at work, it
becomes a whole different ballgame. National origin discrimination is
illegal. A recent case handed down a couple of weeks ago illustrates how
even stray remarks can be decisive in national origin discrimination cases.
Iris Wilkie, a German native, began working for Geisinger Health Plan in
March 1999. She held several different positions, including telemarketing
rep, marketing systems analyst, and a call center sales coordinator. In
2009 a new supervisor came in and started receiving complaints about Wilkie's
performance at work. After several performance improvement plans were
issued to her, she was fired in March 2011.
In her subsequent lawsuit, Wilkie claimed that her supervisors told her
they were "not fond of Germans". In her depositions, she noted
that one supervisor referred to her as "LH", of "little
Hitler", and that he would make jokes about Hitler in meetings and
if front of other employees. Her supervisor also allegedly told her not
to "speak German on personal calls" at work and insisted that
her emails be screened because her "English is too bad to write."
In addition, another supervisor allegedly mocked her accent and difficulties
with English in an email.
The Pennsylvania Federal Court
found, after a lower court had thrown out the case, found that the comments
constituted sufficient evidence of discriminatory animus to make out a
prima facie case. It also pointed out that although the company presented
a legitimate reason for her discharge, her evidence indicated that the
reasons were merely a pretext for discrimination.
Although the company argued that the supervisors were in fact of German
descent, the court found that "it would be unwise to presume as a
matter of law that human beings of one definable group will not discriminate
against other members of their group."
In another indication of discrimination, the supervisor prohibited Wilke
from speaking German, even on phone calls to her own husband. The court
stated that "language may be used as a covert basis for national
origin discrimination", and that if she was the only employee prohibited
from speaking another language, that would also be indicative of discrimination.
The takeaway: Many employers bring their prejudices to work with them,
as irrational as they might be, and can't help themselves from making
stray comments, sometimes jokingly, which indicate a not so hidden bias
against a certain nationality. That's no way to run a company, and
by the way, it is illegal to turn those comments into an adverse employment
action against an employee.