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The ' usual suspects ' issue: Lessons from World War II Morocco about downsizing in the new millennium

The ' usual suspects ' issue: Lessons from World War II Morocco about downsizing in the new millennium

"Major Strasser has been shot. Round up the usual suspects."

- Capt. Renault in Casablanca (Warner Bros. Pictures 1942)

"There are no Jews, only Moroccans."

- King Mohammed V to the Vichy French governor

There were two views of how to run Morocco during World War II. There are two views about how to approach necessary downsizing in the current economic climate.

Now, as then, one is right, one is not.

Times were tough for the Nazi-collaborationist Vichy French in Casablanca, the Moroccan capital, when someone from the Resistance shot the oppressive German officer. So, what to do? Easy. Mistreat "the usual suspects," i.e., those whom the Vichy French/Nazis did not like to begin with.

Times are tough now for American businesses. And those workers who may have generally walked around the office or the factory with a vague sense that there historically had been bulls eyes on their backs may be experiencing heightened anxiety. As people from the 1960s anti-war movement used to say, however, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you."

Put simply, if you're a woman, someone who is not-white, an employee who's over 40, someone who walks with a limp or needs breaks during the day - or if you are an owner or executive of a company that employs such a person - you need to be aware that there are those (discriminatory foremen, for example) who may seize upon the necessity to reduce the size of payrolls as an open-season on persons whom they do not like(or whose gender, race, age or disability status).

The Miami Herald in late May wrote about how law firms representing management in employment-discrimination cases would be doing quite nicely, thank you, in these hard times because so many people would be suing about getting laid off. It quoted the managing partner at the Miami office of a national management-defense firm as making the observation that:

When the job market is vigorous, people who lose their jobs can frequently find another job quickly and move on. In these circumstances, with job prospects looking dim, they want to try to hold their employer accountable for their predicament, so they resort to a lawsuit.

While it may be true that persons who get fired during these hard times may grasp at straws, and that some unscrupulous lawyers may exploit those folks' desperation either to wring retainers from them or to attempt to leverage quick, chump-change settlements from their cash-strapped former employers, these hard times really do make great cover for workplace bigots who seek to disguise their biases as some sort of Darwinian winnowing of the work force.

So, if you, One, are an employee who is a member of a protected-group (which generally in South Florida means that you either look different or speak with a different accent than your co-workers) and, Two, are being told that you are being let go simply because times are tough, look to your right and left and see if there are persons being kept on the job who look or speak differently than you, who are younger than you or who are more physically agile than you. If you own the company, or are high enough up in it that it is your job to make sure nothing wrong goes on, and you see a member of any minority getting laid off, it's your job to look left and right. Whichever side you are on, be realistic in your assessment. There is nothing inherently wrong with employing young, American-born, physically agile males of whatever race happens to be the majority in an employer's community. To keep their jobs during a reduction-in-force, however, they really do need to meet Charles Darwin's criteria of being the fittest to survive.

At The Amlong Firm, our lawyers know how to guide you through objectively examining qualifications of someone being nominated for a lay-off as they stack up next to those of co-workers. If the qualifications of the "Keepers" do not surpass the qualifications of those being shown the door, then there is a likelihood that there is employment discrimination afoot. On the other hand, if the ones staying are better qualified than those being asked to leave, then that means that it is unlikely that the employee who is being reduced-in-force, or "RIF'd," would prevail in an employment discrimination suit.

The important thing is for each side to face reality, to analyze reality and to act only upon reality. Because the laws against employment discrimination protect those who are disadvantaged because of their gender, race, age, religion, national origin, or disability status - but only them. Hard luck is ugly, but not illegal. Lawyers representing employees need to help them figure out whether they qualify as discrimination plaintiffs who are likely to be successful - or whether they should take the severance packages being offered. Lawyers representing businesses need to help managers to ensure that their RIF decisions, especially those that filter up from lower level supervisors, are bullet-proof.

The lawyers at The Amlong Firm are prepared to help with either of those analyses.

Circling back to the Casablanca analogy, there is the wonderful story about how King Mohammed V, the grandfather of the present king, responded when the Vichy French asked for his assistance in rounding up Morocco's Jews so they could be sent to the Holocaust death camps: "There are no Jews, only Moroccans." That is the kind of approach that ensures against discrimination - and the kind of mentality that businesses need to embrace to make sure that hard times do not translate into a license to abuse "the usual suspects."

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