As part of the partnership process, the other partners in the firm were invited to submit written comments on the employee being considered for partnership. There were clear signs, though, that some of the partners reacted negatively to Hopkins's personality because she was a woman. One partner described her as “macho”; another suggested that she “overcompensated for being a woman”; a third advised her to take “a course at charm school.”(Lexis, 490 U.S. 228 U.S. Sup. Ct., 1989) Several partners criticized her use of profanity; in response, one partner suggested that those partners objected to her swearing only “because it's a lady using foul language.”(Lexis, 490 U.S. 228 U.S. Sup. Ct., 1989) Another supporter explained that Hopkins “ha[d] matured from a tough-talking somewhat masculine hard-nosed manager to an authoritative, formidable, but much more appealing lady.”(Lexis, 490 U.S. 228 U.S. Sup. Ct., 1989) Hopkins was also advised to, “walk more femininely, talk more femininely, dress more femininely, wear make-up, have her hair styled, and wear jewelry,”(Lexis, 490 U.S. 228 U.S. Sup. Ct., 1989) by the head of the board when told that she would not make partner.
In spite of this, Price Waterhouse believed it had legitimate reasons to deny Hopkins the partnership. Long before her bid for partnership, Hopkins was advised to improve her relations with staff members. Almost all the partners’ negative remarks about Hopkins-even those of partners supporting her-had to do with her interpersonal skills. They described Hopkins as, “overly aggressive, unduly harsh, difficult to work with and impatient with staff.”(Lexis, 490 U.S. 228 U.S. Sup. Ct., 1989) Although later evaluations indicated an improvement, Hopkins prior evaluations in this important area eventually doomed her bid for partnership. Price Waterhouse believed that Hopkins’s interpersonal skills were a legitimate reason for denying her a partnership.
The legal issue in this case is: How does a company avoid being liable for discrimination when a company has both a legitimate and illegitimate reason for denying a promotional opportunity to an individual? In other words, what must the company do to avoid liability for sex discrimination under Title VII when they would have made the same decision even if no discrimination existed? Hopkins used the written comments as direct evidence to prove disparate treatment in her case. She believed that the decision not to make her partner resulted from sexual stereotyping. In other words, Hopkins believed Price Waterhouse violated Title VII when it, “denied [her] employment opportunities by assuming that she must have traditionally ‘female’ traits,” and that the company had, “penalize[d] her for lacking such traits.” (Mallor p.1263) Using this information, Hopkins was very effective in proving Price Waterhouse discriminated against her base upon gender. However, “even if the plaintiff proves a Title VII violation, the employer still prevails if it can establish one of Title VII’s defenses.”(Mallor p.1259) Price Waterhouse testified that the same action would have been taken for the legitimate reasons alone. In the company’s eyes, Hopkins should not have been as aggressive as she was, thus she did not make partner because she was so aggressive. The company argued that the comments of the individual partners did not prove an intentional discriminatory motive or purpose. They believed that evaluations showed Hopkins had considerable problems dealing with staff and peers, thus, she would not have been elected to partnership. The District Court ruled in Hopkins’s favor on the question of liability. It ruled that Price Waterhouse had unlawfully discriminated against her on the basis of sex by consciously accepting partners' comments about her that resulted from sex stereotyping. The Court of Appeals agreed. Both courts held that an employer who has allowed a discriminatory motive to play a part in an employment decision must prove by clear and convincing evidence that it would have made the same decision in the absence of discrimination, and that Price Waterhouse had not carried this burden. The ethical issue in this case is: When there is no deliberate intent to discriminate, is the effect the same? Should a woman’s behavior in the workplace differ from a man’s? When working for larger organizations, employees are usually expected to, “obey organizational superiors, pursue the organization’s goals, and avoid any activities that might threaten that goal.” (Velasquez p.353) It is no secret that attitudes exist within institutions in regards to gender and the perceived actions of specific genders, especially when it comes to women. Too often we allow ourselves to adopt those attitudes without thinking about the effect they have on certain individuals. Most men can be aggressive in the workplace and it is not an issue. With this type of attitude, men advance in the company quickly. However, when a woman is just as aggressive it is often frowned upon. Women are usually subjected to the “glass ceiling” and given excuse after excuse as to why they are not being promoted. Although there may be no deliberate intent to discriminate, the effect is still the same - sexual discrimination. In today’s society there are fewer jobs where a woman’s behavior should differ from a man’s behavior. Many businesses are following the utilitarian view which states, “to ensure that jobs are maximally productive, they must be assigned to those individuals whose skills and personality traits qualify them as the most competent for the job.” (Velasquez p.320) What this means is that employers exclude such things as race and gender when making decisions regarding their employees. By adopting this philosophy employers demonstrate the principle of equality, that, “individuals who are equal in all respects relevant to [job description and performance] should be treated equally even of they are dissimilar in other, non-relevant respects.” (Velasquez p.322) In this aspect the effect is different it is not discrimination, rather a relevant respect for treating people different. A woman’s behavior should differ from that of a man’s in the same workplace only if it is required by job description. An employer must be extremely careful that when a decision appears to have a sexual overtone, they can prove that they would have made the same decision regardless of stereotyping. Seldom are workplace personnel decisions based solely on one factor. Decisions are usually a mixture of taking numerous factors into consideration. By making decisions in such a way an organization can achieve its economical, societal, and organizational goals.
LexisNexis Academic, Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, No. 87-1167, SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES, 485 U.S. 933; 108 S. Ct. 1106; 99 L. Ed. 2d 268; 1988 U.S. LEXIS 1184; 56 U.S.L.W. 3608; 45 Empl. Prac. Dec. (CCH) P37,793, March 7, 1988, retrieved February 8, 2008 from Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, No. 87-1167, SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES, 485 U.S. 933; 108 S. Ct. 1106; 99 L. Ed. 2d 268; 1988 U.S. LEXIS 1184; 56 U.S.L.W. 3608; 45 Empl. Prac. Dec. (CCH) P37,793, March 7, 1988
Mallor, Jane, et.al., Business Law: The Ethical, Global, and E-Commerce Environment (13th Edition), New York: McGraw-Hill Irwin (2007).
Velasquez, Manuel, Business Ethics: Concepts and Cases (6th Edition), Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson/Prentice Hall (2006).