A Question of Discrimination

LearnInMotion.com: A Question of Discrimination

One of the problems LearnInMotion’s Jennifer and Mel faced concerned the inadequacies of the firm’s current personnel management practices and procedures. The previous year had been a swirl of activity—creating and testing the business model, launching the site, writing and rewriting the business plan, and finally getting venture funding. And, it would be accurate to say that in all that time, they put absolutely no time into employee manuals, personnel policies, or HR-related matters.

Almost from the beginning, it was apparent to both of them that they were “out of our depth” (as Mel put it) when it came to the letter and spirit of equal employment opportunity laws. Having both been through business school, they were familiar with the general requirements, such as not asking applicants their ages. However, those general guidelines weren’t always easy to translate into practice during the actual applicant interviews. Two incidents particularly concerned them. One of the applicants for a sales position was in his 50s, which made him about twice as old as any other applicant. While Mel didn’t mean to be discriminatory, he found himself asking this candidate questions that he did not ask of other, younger candidates, questions such as “Do you think you’ll be able to get up to speed selling an Internet product?” and “You know, we’ll be working very long hours here; are you up to that?” There was also a problem with a candidate for the other position (content manager). This person had been incarcerated for a substance abuse problem several years before. Mel asked him several questions about this, as well as whether he was now “clean” or “under any sort of treatment.” Jennifer thought questions like these were probably OK, but she wasn’t sure.

There was also a disturbing incident in the office. There were already two content management employees, Ruth and Dan, whose job was to place the courses and other educational content on the Web site. Dan, along with Alex the Web surfer, occasionally used vulgarity—for instance, when referring to the problems the firm was having getting the computer supplier to come to the office and repair a chronic problem with the firm’s server. Mel’s attitude was that “boys will be boys.” However, Jennifer saw Ruth cringe several times when “the boys” were having one of these exchanges, and felt strongly that this behavior had to stop. However, she was not sure language like this constituted “a hostile environment” under the law, although she did feel that at a minimum it was uncivil. The two owners decided it was time to implement some HR policies. They hoped these would ensure that their company and its employees adhere to the letter and the spirit of the equal employment opportunity laws. Now they want you, their management consultants, to help them actually do it. Here’s what they want you to do for them.

QUESTIONS AND ASSIGNMENTS

1.Our company is in New York City. We now have only about five employees and are only planning on hiring about three or four more. Is our company covered by equal rights legislation? (Hint: Does the government’s Web site provide any clues?)

2.Were we within our legal rights to ask the possibly age-related and substance abuse–related questions? Why or why not?

3.Did Dan and Alex create a hostile environment for Ruth? Why or why not? How should we have handled this matter?

4.What have we been doing wrong up to now with respect to EEO-related matters, and how do you suggest we rectify the situation in the future?

 
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