Employer Lawfully Focused on Applicants’ People Skills

By Jeffrey Rhodes January 24, 2019
Employer Lawfully Focused on Applicants’ People Skills

The school board of Shelby County, Ala., did not discriminate against a black applicant by promoting a white candidate deemed as having superior people skills, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.

The plaintiff had worked for Vincent Middle/High School for about 16 years when she applied for a promotion to the registrar/data manager position. She had extensive data entry experience and was knowledgeable about the software system used by the registrar's office.

In the interview process, an interview panel of the Shelby County Board of Education asked all candidates for the position questions concerning their people skills and customer service mindset. The panel focused on criteria not emphasized in the registrar job description and scrapped a numerical rating system that was provided on the interview forms.

Instead, the interview panel used a comprehensive approach to score the candidates. The panel asked all candidates the same questions, made notes of their answers and made assessments concerning the responses received. Under this approach, the panel discussed each candidate's strengths and weaknesses, any personal knowledge that the interviewers had of the candidate, and the overall impression of the candidate following his or her interview.

The plaintiff believed that this approach was discriminatory because it resulted in the school board selecting a white candidate whose qualifications under the position description were inferior to hers. The plaintiff also noted certain inconsistencies regarding the selection process as applied to herself and the selected candidate. For example, the plaintiff noted that an interview panel member could not remember specific details about the selected candidate's interview.

The plaintiff also noted that an interview panel member expressed concern that the plaintiff might be intimidating and that the plaintiff came across as very monotone and flat in her interview.

The plaintiff brought a lawsuit claiming discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 against certain board members in their official and individual capacities. The board members filed a motion for summary judgment to have the case dismissed before it went to trial.

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In arguing that summary judgment was appropriate, the board members presented evidence that the interviewer who had criticized the plaintiff used similar language to express concern about another candidate who was white.

Additionally, they showed that the interview approach applied equally to all of the candidates. Like the plaintiff, a white candidate was equally disadvantaged by the process used by the board interview panel. This other candidate had similar or even superior qualifications to the plaintiff yet was ranked near the bottom of the list because of her allegedly poor people skills.

The interview panel's decision not to compare candidates' interview answers to model answers affected the white candidate in the same negative way that it affected the plaintiff. The fact that applicants of all races were similarly disadvantaged by the panel's choices during the interview process supported the board members' argument that the panel's process was not designed to conceal racial discrimination.

The plaintiff nonetheless argued that the board historically had not hired any black support staff in the front office at Vincent Middle/High School. However, the 11th Circuit found that this assertion standing alone did not establish that the board's decision to hire a white candidate was racially motivated. Rather, the plaintiff had not provided a sufficient analytical foundation to show that the statistics demonstrated that the board's true motivation was discrimination.

As a result, the 11th Circuit upheld the district court's granting of summary judgment to the board members and dismissal of the case.

Martin v. Shelby County Board of Education, 11th Cir., No. 18-11386 (Nov. 27, 2018).

Professional Pointer: Employers that consider soft skills such as personality and sociability in their selection decisions must be especially careful to avoid any inherent bias. While these criteria can be used, they are often questioned as a potential pretext for discrimination.

Jeffrey Rhodes is an attorney with Doumar Martin in Arlington, Va.



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