Attack on an employer’s promotion decision

Are you prepared to defend a promotion or hiring decision when someone accuses you of discrimination? That’s when an employer must be in a position to show their selection was absolutely non-discriminatory and based upon selecting the best candidate.

Missed promotion

For more than 18 years, Chris Edwards worked for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics (OBN). When an opening for the position of Agent in Charge became available, Director Darrell Weaver interviewed six people. Ultimately, Weaver selected Brian Veazey over Edwards, an African American, for the promotion. Veazey was of Native American and Hispanic heritage. Edwards sued the OBN in Oklahoma City federal court for the missed promotion claiming that the selection was partially based on racial discrimination.

For cases alleging discrimination in promotions, the selector’s motivation, the applicants’ qualifications, and their hiring history can all come into play. Here, Edwards was unquestionably qualified – he had a college degree and extensive law enforcement experience. Weaver explained Veazey was chosen because he was more qualified than Edwards for the job and because Edwards “underperformed in the interview.” For example, Veazey had a proven track record in another leadership role.

Reasons for promotion challenged

Edwards took on the OBN’s explanation. Edwards argued his missed promotion had nothing to do with Veazey being more qualified. According to Edwards, Weaver had already “pre-selected” Veazey for promotion before the opening occurred.

First, Edwards offered two examples where Weaver had pre-selected others for promotions in the past. In those instances, Weaver sent two employees to a “Chief School” before they had attained the rank of chief. Later, when chief positions became vacant, Weaver promoted the same two employees to chief. Further, Edwards pointed out that Weaver had arranged for Veazey to accompany him to an out-of-town conference before Veazey was interviewed for the promotion.

Next, Edwards challenged the OBN’s assertion that Veazey’s qualifications were superior to those of Edwards. Veazey had been disciplined for an inappropriate sexual relationship with a confidential informant, while Edwards had never been disciplined during his 18 years with the Bureau.

The OBN’s reliance on the candidates’ interviews withered when the employer acknowledged that both Veazey and Edwards performed poorly during the interview portion of the selection process. Additionally, Edwards complained that in making his decision, Weaver relied upon negative comments by Edward’s indirect supervisor rather than the favorable ratings of his direct supervisor.

Finally, Edwards asserted that Weaver pre-selected Veazey, who was Hispanic, for the promotion as an act of self-preservation. At the time of the promotion, Weaver was dealing with a discrimination claim filed by another Hispanic employee.

All things considered, the Oklahoma City federal judge decided it was appropriate to allow a jury to hear the evidence and decide whether Veazey was selected based on his superior qualifications or pre-selected based upon discriminatory motives on the part of Weaver.

Takeaway

Like it or not, employers accused of discriminatory promotion will have their motives questioned and their selection decision second-guessed by judges, juries and agencies. The same is true when dealing with discriminatory failure-to-hire claims. The employer will want to demonstrate that all candidates benefitted from a level playing field and that the promotion or hiring decision was based upon identifiable differences in the experience and qualifications of the individuals under consideration.

Edwards v. The Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control, Case No. CIV-15-791-C (W.D. Okla. 1/30/17)