A federal jury in North Carolina awarded a former health executive $10 million in punitive damages after finding that his race and gender—white and male—were motivating factors in his ex-employer’s decision to fire him.
The employer, Novant Health, asserted the executive was fired because he was a “high performing, but low potential” employee who failed to engage with leadership and lacked faith from his colleagues. The executive, however, alleged he was part of a plan to replace senior white executives as part of the company’s efforts to increase diversity.
The executive’s evidence that he was one of seven white executives replaced by women or Black men was largely kept from the jury by the judge to prevent unfair prejudice and confusion. However, the executive was permitted to show the jury evidence that over time the company had reduced the number of white males reporting directly to his boss.
The jury verdict highlights an issue that can arise in workplaces seeking to improve diversity in the workforce. An employee does not have to be a member of a minority or historically underrepresented group to assert a meritorious discrimination claim, and the desire to increase diversity is not a legal reason for terminating an employee. Companies introducing and implementing diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives should carefully explore the legal implications and restrictions on such programs with legal counsel to avoid unintended consequences. Employers also should use care in identifying and describing the reasons for an employee’s termination. Vague or overly subjective reasons are far more difficult to support than more objective and well-documented ones.