Legal

Customer Preference and Race Discrimination: When the Customer Isn’t Right

By Jon Hyman

Jul. 24, 2014

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has sued a Chicago auto parts retailer for race discrimination after it fired an African-American store manager. The store, an AutoZone, was located in a heavily Hispanic Chicago neighborhood. The company decided to eliminate or limit the number of non-Hispanic employees working at the store, believing that its Hispanic customers preferred to interact with Hispanic employees. When the manager refused to report to another store, the EEOC claims he was fired.

John Hendrickson, the EEOC’s regional attorney in Chicago, explains in a news release why the agency filed suit.

Fifty years after the adoption of the Civil Rights Act, a major employer transferring an employee simply because of his race and then firing him for not going along is unacceptable. When the employer is a major national brand and a leader in its industry, it’s even worse. Everyone must understand that supposed customer preference is no excuse for discrimination—it’s still illegal, and the EEOC will step in to challenge it.

Hendrickson is correct. As one federal court explains, “It is now widely accepted that a company’s desire to cater to the perceived racial preferences of its customers is not a defense under Title VII for treating employees differently based on race.” Avoid the trap of acting on a mistaken belief that customers will only deal with like-skinned employees. Simply, the customer can never choose the race of the person working for you. The customer might be right about a lot things, but discrimination is not one of them.

Jon Hyman is a partner in the Employment & Labor practice at Wickens Herzer Panza. Contact Hyman at JHyman@Wickenslaw.com.

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