Many companies believe they are well prepared to prevent color bias discrimination in the workplace. They’ve established policies, asked employees to read them, trained staff members to be aware of cultural and ethnic diversity, and encouraged the reporting of incidents.

They’ve done what they can to meet Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits job bias on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin. But what about color bias?

Color Bias

The problem is, many people assume race and color are synonymous and the law applies only to discrimination between different races or ethnic groups. As a result, color bias has often gone unreported. But that’s changing.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), which enforces the Civil Rights Act, says color-bias complaints have soared since the mid-1990s and represent a “potential emerging” trend in workplace discrimination trends.

Under federal law, discriminating against people based on the shade of their skin is distinct from — but just as illegal as — racial discrimination.

Color discrimination doesn’t necessarily involve racial bias. For example, whites can be guilty of color discrimination (but not racial discrimination) if they favor hiring light-skinned black applicants over dark-skinned blacks.

However, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says a significant number of color-bias complaints involve intra-race allegations.

Two Cases that Illustrate the Problem

1)

Dwight Burch, a former employee of the Applebee’s restaurant chain, filed discrimination charges alleging that a light-skinned African American manager discriminated against him because of his dark skin color.

Burch charged that the manager fired him when he threatened to report harassing remarks to Applebee’s headquarters office.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigated and filed suit in U.S. District Court in Atlanta after attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement with the company.

Applebee’s settled the case in 2003 and agreed to give Mr. Burch $40,000 for lost pay and emotional distress, while it denied liability or wrongdoing.

The company also agreed to:

  • Conduct anti-discrimination training.

  • Report to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission all color-harassment claims made in the next 18 months by employees at any of the chain’s Georgia restaurants.

  • Include color discrimination in its written harassment and discrimination policies.

2)

In another case, a San Juan furniture company was sued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2009 for color bias and retaliation.

A Puerto Rican store manager allegedly harassed a Puerto Rican employee about his dark skin color, inquiring why the employee was “so black,” and later firing the employee after the mistreatment was reported.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission attorney Nora E. Curtin noted: “Harassment based on skin color can be just as humiliating and degrading as other forms of discrimination. Employers must treat colorism complaints seriously and punish the perpetrators — not the victims.”

To ensure your anti-discrimination policy is as comprehensive as possible, make sure it clearly states that bias based on color, as well as race, will not be tolerated.

When classifying discrimination cases, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission considers the races of the parties involved and the nature of allegedly derogatory comments.

Pay Attention to the Writing on the Wall

A national grocery chain agreed to pay $8.9 million and furnish other relief to settle three employment discrimination lawsuits filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The agency charged Albertsons, LLC, with race, color, and national origin discrimination and retaliation at its Aurora, Colorado, distribution center.

According to the lawsuit, part of the case involved minority employees being repeatedly subjected to derogatory graffiti. The offensive writings and drawings, which were found in a commonly used men’s room, included racial and ethnic slurs, depictions of lynchings, swastikas, white supremacist declarations and anti-immigrant statements.

As part of the December 2009 settlement, the monetary relief was distributed among 168 former and current employees.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Regional Attorney Mary Jo O’Neill stated: “The graffiti was particularly shocking. Employers need to aggressively criticize such conduct, seek out the culprits and take swift action. Discrimination, harassment and retaliation are no joke. Supervisors and managers need to take complaints seriously.”