Do You Train Managers to Watch Their Words?

Isolated remarks related to an employee’s national origin may not be enough to support a claim of discrimination, but they can lead to costly lawsuits. During training, be sure that managers and supervisors understand the negative consequences of making “politically incorrect” comments.
What Happened
“Akila,” an Egyptian dentist, enrolled in a 2-year dentistry program for international students at the University of the Pacific, intending to become credentialed to practice dentistry in the United States.
During a procedure 3 months before graduation, Akila followed her clinical supervisor’s instructions to seat a crown. The procedure was not successful.
After learning about the failed crown seating, “Stuart,” the head of the restorative dentistry program, told Akila that her “clinical work on the patient … was ‘Third World dentistry.’” The comment was made in the presence of other faculty, students, and patients.
Akila confronted Stuart in his office. She told him that her clinical supervisor had recommended the crown-seating procedure, and she was merely following his instructions. Stuart noted that the procedure used was “nowhere in the syllabus.” Akila reiterated that she was following her supervisor’s advice, and she “did not feel that it was [her] place to question the direction of a respected faculty member.”

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Stuart did not relent, saying, “It’s still Third World dentistry.” When Akila said that his comment offended her, he asked her where she is from. When she replied that she is from Egypt, he told her that Egypt is “not a Third World country.” Akila responded that, in fact, Egypt is a Third World country. Stuart, however, insisted, “No, it’s not, and it’s still Third World dentistry.” “Yes, it is [a Third World country]. And in any case, I learned this Third World dentistry in your First World clinic,” Akila replied.
A short time later, Akila was greeted by another supervisor with the comment, “What’s up, T.W.?” Akila did not understand the remark. “Oh come on! Don’t you get it? … Third World?” the supervisor said.
She later sent that supervisor a thank-you e-mail for his assistance with a different procedure. She signed the e-mail with her name followed by “aka T.W.”
Akila learned 4 days before graduation that she would not graduate. Although her course work performance was more than adequate, she was told that she would have to do remedial work in restorative dentistry and removable prosthodontics. She was allowed to perform an additional quarter of clinical work at no extra cost, but her performance did not improve.
Her evaluators concluded that her performance was “clinically unacceptable,” and she was, in fact, harming patients. Faculty members discussed her poor performance in e-mails and tried to create a “strategy” to prevent her from practicing dentistry in the United States until she could practice safely.
The faculty decided that she should continue with remedial work before returning to clinical work with patients. She did not attend a meeting to discuss the recommendation. The faculty sent her a copy of the proposed remediation plan, explaining that the faculty hoped she would “consider returning to school at [her] earliest convenience to fulfill the requirements of the [remediation] plan and earn [her] degree.”
Akila did not respond, so a committee accepted the plan on her behalf. She did not appeal that decision. Instead, she took a leave of absence and filed suit against the university, Stuart, and others, alleging national origin discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The district court ruled in favor of the university, instructors, and administrators. Akila appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which covers Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.

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In tomorrow’s Advisor, we’ll learn what the court said and what can be learned from this case about the importance of training to avoid such a lawsuit in your organization.