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A Question of Discrimination

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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.


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

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