Recently, a Federal District Court in the Middle District of Tennessee held, in Marie Hastings v. First Community Mortgage, that a female former Human Resource Director’s claim of sex discrimination was not established simply by the fact that she had been excluded from a social group of male executives, even though she alleged in her complaint that company decisions were made at these social meetings without any input from females.
According to the plaintiff, male executives of the company attended luncheons and socialized amongst themselves without her. She further alleged in the complaint that company business was discussed during these meetings and that this “club” was referred to throughout the company by the name of a male anatomical part.
The Court held that not being invited to lunch with male managers might be “dispiriting and frustrating” to her, but that fact alone could not support a claim of sex discrimination. According to the Court, such action did not rise to the level of “adverse employment action” ‒ a necessary element to prove sex discrimination.
In supporting its decision to dismiss the ex-employee’s claim of sex discrimination, the Court noted that the club was not a formal club with attributes like membership and meetings and that it was not a sanctioned club by the employer. The Court also noted that the ex-employee testified that she did not know how the group got its crude name or whether the male executives actually used that name. Importantly, the Court also found that the ex-employee did not know, in fact, whether company business was ever discussed at its “meetings”.
In recent years, claims of unconscious bias have become more prevalent. Unconscious bias can occur when people gravitate to those with whom they have similar traits, characteristics and/or interests. In the First Community Mortgage case, male executives may have socialized with other male executives to the exclusion of the female Human Resource Director because of unconscious bias. This can open up employers to claims, which are costly to defend. As the First Community Mortgage case highlights, however, unconscious bias by itself will not support claims of discrimination but rather an employee must still show with admissible evidence that such bias resulted in some real adverse employment action.