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North Carolina officials hired man to 'add diversity' to all-female office. Is it discrimination?

Will Doran, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) on

Published in News & Features

RALEIGH, N.C. -- When Wendy Johnson applied for a promotion at the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, she was passed over for the job. She talked to a female co-worker who had also been passed over, and who said she heard that the bosses wanted a man for the job.

So Johnson sued the state, claiming gender discrimination. Complicating the case are two issues.

On one hand, the man who was ultimately hired for the job was rated as the most qualified applicant. He was the only one of the seven candidates who scored above-average in an interview test.

On the other hand, state officials do indeed appear to have hired him in part because he is a man. They said at the time -- before the lawsuit ever began -- that it actually should be seen as a diversity hire: The office he was applying to join had an all-female staff.

The man is not named in the lawsuit, which simply calls him John Doe.

The DPS manager in charge of interviewing candidates, Lou Ann Avery, wrote in an email that she was recommending the man who was ultimately hired. She said he was the most qualified, and also that his gender was a plus. A different manager, Lisa Murray, then approved the request using the exact same language as in Avery's email.

 

The position in question was a human resources assistant manager job in the state prison system's Western Foothills Regional Employment Office, located between Hickory and Morganton.

"On February 22, 2017 we interviewed a total of 7 applicants," Avery wrote in the email, according to the Court of Appeals ruling. "Three applicants scored Average, three scored Below Average, Mr. (Doe) was the only Above Average score. Promoting Mr. (Doe) to the WFREO will also add diversity to an all female staff. I am recommending $42,159 salary for Mr. (Doe), a 10% increase from his current salary."

For a while, it appeared that the state's argument would win -- that officials had not committed gender discrimination. Johnson lost her original challenge, at the state's Office of Administrative Hearings.

But she appealed the decision, and on Tuesday the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled that the administrative law judge in the original case mishandled it.

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