The Importance of Supervisory Anti-Discrimination Training

July 12, 2011, 8:28 AM

Historically, Virginia's federal courts have required employees claiming discrimination to demonstrate that the actual decision-maker, as opposed to other supervisors with whom the employee worked, showed a discriminatory motive in his or her treatment of the employee. While inappropriate and unlawful motives by other non-decision-makers might be deplorable, violate workplace policies, and result in disciplinary action, they could not be the linchpin of the plaintiff's discrimination case.

The Supreme Court recently decided a case that should inspire employers to reiterate anti-discrimination training for all employees, particularly supervisors. In Staub v. Procter Hospital, the Supreme Court was persuaded that the unlawful motives of two supervisors influenced a third supervisor to terminate an Army Reservist employee. The employee, who was protected by the Uniform Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act after serving intermittently as a Reservist, demonstrated that two of his supervisors were tired of his frequent absences from work and took affirmative steps to penalize him. The employee was ultimately terminated by the third supervisor, based partly on an independent investigation and partly on the reports of the unlawfully-motivated supervisors. Both sides agreed that the third supervisor lacked any discriminatory motive.

The Supreme Court ruled that an employer may be liable for an adverse employment action (in this case, a termination) even where the actual decision-maker is free of unlawful bias, where that supervisor has been used as the "cat's paw" by other, unlawfully-motivated supervisors. A few lessons for employers: (1) employers should be vigilant in maintaining a discrimination-free workplace, from top to bottom; (2) all employees should receive anti-discrimination training and be well aware of resulting discipline for policy violations; (3) prior to taking any adverse employment actions, employers should conduct a thorough investigation, keeping in mind the potential for any bias or improper motivation of the employee's entire supervisory team; and (4) decision-makers must avoid blind reliance on supervisory reports. --Anna Richardson Smith & Mark E. Warmbier