Workplace Culture

Get in the Zone … the Racial Bias Zone?

By Jon Hyman

Jun. 18, 2015

Does Title VII permit an employer to staff its stores based on the racial composition of its customers? That’s the question at the heart of EEOC v. AutoZone, currently pending in federal court in Chicago.

In the lawsuit, the EEOC alleges that the auto-parts retailer transferred African-American employees to certain stores in the Chicago area based on its conception that its Hispanic customers preferred to interact with Hispanic employees. 

According to Employment Law 360 [sub. req.], AutoZone claims that the EEOC cannot prove its claim because the transferees would have suffered no loss in pay, benefits, position, or responsibilities, and therefore suffered no adverse employment action under Title VII.

Meanwhile, the EEOC claims that this brand of segregation is the exact type of discrimination Title VII is supposed to prohibit: “Structuring a workforce or work assignments by race is at the core of what Title VII was enacted to combat. Autozone’s argument boils down to the proposition that an employer is free to segregate its workforce so long as it is careful to do so through lateral transfers. Title VII is not that narrow.”

It seems to me that even if the pay, benefits, etc. were exactly the same in both stores, we abolished “separate-but-equal” 61 years ago, and Title VII should not permit an employers to Plessy v. Ferguson its workforce for any reason.

For more on customer preference as discrimination, check out the following two posts from the archives:

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

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