While some matters get all the headlines, the work of the state and federal courts move on.  One such case came out earlier this week and I highlight it because it touches on a point that employers sometimes lose sight of — the ability to still make subjective decisions and have that decision supported by a court later on.

The case, Spell v. State of Connecticut (D. Conn., March 17, 2009)(Thompson, J.) (download here), relates to an applicant’s claim that he was not hired for a position with the Chief State’s Attorney’s office because he was African-American. He claimed he was “more qualified than any of the Caucasian applicants selected to fill the … positions.”  He also claimed that he was more mature and has more education than the Hispanic applicant who was ultimately hired for the position and that he had more experience than that person as well. 

The court granted the State’s motion for summary judgment, effectively dismissing the applicant’s claims on multiple grounds.  Part of the court’s decision focused on the theory that courts will not circumvent the judgment of the employer and that even subjective criteria are allowed in some circumstances:

Although Spell alleges that he was “more qualified than any of the Caucasian applicants selected to fill the … positions,” this allegation is insufficient to support a conclusion that the Chief State’s Attorney’s enumerated reasons were pretextual in this case…. Employers may base their hiring decisions on some subjective criteria.  Title VII only requires that a hiring decision not be based on a discriminatory reason; it “does not require that the candidate whom a court considers most qualified for a particular position be awarded that position.” Thus, it was not improper for the Chief State’s Attorney to base its decision to internally promote [one person], rather than accept a new hire, on its subjective impressions of his work.

What’s the Take Away for Employers From This Case?

Employers have to make difficult hiring and hiring decisions all the time.  Every attempt should be made at the time to base the decisions on supportable items.  Objective criteria (this person has a certificaion that another applicant doesn’t) always help, but that does not mean that you should disregard subjective criteria (this person was more enthusiastic at the job interview) entirely. Courts willl support employer decisions in those cases but, as is the case above, the employer had some pretty good explanations for the court to rest its analysis on.