Discrimination in the Workplace: Facially Neutral Employment Policies May Lead to Unlawful Discrimination – Griggs v. Duke Power Co., 401 U.S. 424 (1971)

This US Supreme Court case is about discrimination in the workplace, which does not look like discrimination at first sight. It involves using facially neutral employment policies that have a disparate impact and lead to unlawful discrimination at work. A class action lawsuit was brought by Afro-American employees against their employer – Duke Power Company. The plaintiffs alleged that their employer used discriminatory practices when required a high school education or passing a standardized general intelligence test as a condition of employment, or transfer/promotion.

The question which the Supreme Court had to decide is whether an employer was violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Act) when it required as a precondition of the employment or transfer a high school education or passing a standardized general intelligence test presuming that:

  • neither high school education nor the test were significantly related to successful job performance
  • both requirements led to disqualify Afro-Americans at a substantially higher rate than white applicants, and
  • it was an established practice of hiring for those jobs only white applicants.

The Supreme Court ruled that under the Act it was illegal to require a high school education or passing of a standardized general intelligence test as a condition of employment or transfer to another job. The Court established that the employees’ rights were violated by their employer’s discriminatory practices.

This decision aims at removing of artificial and arbitrary barriers to employment used to discriminate on the basis of race or other illegal reasons. It is clear that sometimes general tests and diploma or degree requirements are inadequate measures of measuring employment qualification of applicants for a job or promotion. There are too many examples when employees perform their duties in a highly effective manner without any diplomas or certificates.

Tests and diplomas can be used at evaluating applicants’ qualification, but not as a tool of employment discrimination. Use of such tests or diploma requirements should not lead to discrimination in the workplace, racial or any other type of harassment, and hostile work environment.