The Limits of Customer Preference in Hiring and Promotion Decisions and Helping Managers Communicate with Employees

January 10, 2008

A recent federal court of appeals decision in Simple v. Walgreens Company is a case study on two important points. First, how the pressures of marketing in a competitive retail environment can overtake the limits of discrimination laws. Second, how a supervisor’s communication with an employee can create an issue of discrimination.

Like many retailers, Walgreens tracks demographic data and relates it to each retail store. At issue in the case was whether the racial demographic data was used in promotion decisions to assign personnel to “black” or “white” stores depending on the race of the employee. The court noted as follows:

There is no evidence that [the successful white candidate] was more qualified to manage the store in Pontiac[, Michigan] than the plaintiff, who had twice her experience as an assistant manager, the mandatory stepping stone to store manager. But she is white, and the store is in a predominantly white neighborhood, while the plaintiff is black and so was twice offered a "black" store–and when the store manager’s job at the "white" store fell vacant he was ignored.

The evidence of the company’s racial motivation was found in a supervisor’s comments to the plaintiff in an effort to make him feel better:

"I may have stated that Pontiac was possibly not ready to have a black manager. It is well known in this area that some of the smaller, outlying towns have some very racist tendencies, and I was simply trying to make [the plaintiff] feel better because my feeling was he may not have been very happy working there."

From this statement, the court concluded as follows:

The significance of [the supervisor’s] remark about racism in Pontiac lies in the fact that as an experienced Walgreens store manager (it appears that she had been one for at least four years) she was undoubtedly aware of what [the district manager] was looking for in a store manager in Pontiac, and one interpretation of the remark is that the plaintiff’s race would bar him from consideration…. The plaintiff would not feel "happy" among Pontiac’s white racists, which is a standard euphemism for refusing a job to someone of a different race from the people he would be associating with. Racial segregation is obviously a form of racial discrimination.

The presumption underlying “customer preferences” is that people prefer to interact with those of the same race, gender, religion, or other characteristic. Employment decisions are justified by appealing to a target demographic group. Courts have universally rejected customer preference as a basis for employment decisions except in the narrow case where it is a Bona Fide Occupational Qualification (BFOQ).

The attorneys at Godfrey & Kahn have a great post analyzing the role of customer preference in health care marketing called Can We Use Gender in Our Hiring Decisions? The Discrimination Bona Fide Occupational Qualification (BFOQ) Applied to Health Care.  Fay Hansen’s post Recruiting on the Right Side of the Law describes the pressures of retail establishments to market an image through their sales associates and the resulting discrimination issues.