Manager's one dumb comment triggers race discrimination lawsuit

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When an employee wants to transfer to a new department, but isn’t qualified for the job, it seems like a fairly straightforward situation. But one offhand comment can quickly turn an open and shut case into a lengthy legal battle. 

Not qualified

Jerberee Jefferson was a clerk in the finance department at Sewon America. She’d been taking technology classes and expressed interest in transferring to the IT department after discovering an open position. The department manager encouraged her interest and had Jefferson take the skills test required for the job.
But Jefferson didn’t pass the IT skills test. And after undergoing a bad performance evaluation as well, she was officially out of the running for the job.
The manager explained Jefferson didn’t have the required five years of experience. But instead of ending there, he added that he “really wanted a Korean in the position.”

Race discrimination, retaliation

Jefferson reported this interaction, claiming she didn’t get the job because she was African American, but HR told her to “brush it off.” Shortly after that, Jefferson was fired for her poor performance review. She quickly filed a lawsuit, claiming she faced race discrimination and retaliation for reporting the incident.
The company argued Jefferson wasn’t qualified — she failed the skills test and performance evaluation, and didn’t have the necessary IT experience. Sewon went on to say that Jefferson was fired for her poor performance review, not her HR complaint.
But a circuit court agreed with Jefferson. Though there were legitimate reasons for denying the transfer, the manager’s comment along with Jefferson’s termination shortly after reporting it was enough for the court to send the case to trial.
What should’ve been a basic transfer denial turned into an expensive lesson for this employer. It’s important to remind managers to never bring up a protected class as a reason for denying a promotion or transfer, and to take all discrimination complaints seriously.

Rachel Mucha
Rachel writes about Human Resource management and has been a member of the HRMorning staff since 2017. She is a graduate of Ithaca College. Email: