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Carl Kanowsky: When smart people make poor Internet decisions

Posted: August 24, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: August 24, 2012 2:00 a.m.
 

Sometimes really smart and well-educated people make stupid decisions. The University of Kentucky can testify to that.

In my last column we explored how social media and the Internet can provide an attractive trap for the unwary employer. Employers believe they can tap into this to gain insight into prospective candidates. However, if they’re not careful, the tables can be turned.

The University of Kentucky Department of Physics and Astronomy is manned by brilliant scientists, people that are truly geniuses. They seem to lack some common sense, though.

The department needed an observatory director. They assembled a search committee to handle this, composed mainly of faculty members that actually are rocket scientists. The chair of the department was an ex-officio member. The committee vetted several candidates.

As the saying goes, “The cream will rise to the top.” And that’s exactly what happened to C. Martin Gaskell. As the court decision says about Gaskell, “He is a professional astronomer with a primary interest in extra-galactic astronomy and, in particular, super-massive black holes and active galactic nuclei.” Yeah, those nuclei are fascinating.

At the time of his application, Dr. Marty ran the University of Nebraska student observatory, exactly what the UK search committee wanted. So, on paper, he was the best person for the job. He had the education and experience, coupled with a successful career.

Based on that, the committee began investigating Gaskell more closely. They found his personal website, where they learned that he was essentially a fundamentalist Christian who questioned the theories of evolution.

Now, the position was not for one in the biology department — it was in astronomy, where all of the committee members agreed Gaskell excelled. But there was concern that he might not mesh well with others in the university because of his religious beliefs.

One committee member was so disturbed by the process that he wrote an email to the department head. This committee member was concerned that despite Gaskell’s excellent credentials, he would be denied the job because of his religion. The department head denied this was the motivation but nevertheless decided, based on the committee’s recommendation, to offer the job to a less-qualified applicant. The department head did concede that Gaskell’s beliefs played a role in his decision.

When Gaskell wasn’t hired, he sued the university for religious discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Title VII forbids discrimination based on a person’s religion, which includes all aspects of the person’s religious observance, practice and  belief. The university denied the allegations.

Unfortunately for the university, the judge ruled that there was sufficient evidence to allow Gaskell to take his case to a jury. The judge found the emails between the committee members, their individual testimony and the records of the committee to be too compelling to ignore. Shortly after the judge’s decision, the university settled with Gaskell for $125,000.

What could the committee have done differently?

First, there should not have been emails that made the plaintiff’s case. Second, the committee members should have kept their collective eyes on the prize, an experienced and respected observatory director. They got distracted by the noise about Gaskell’s religious beliefs. Third, when they found themselves in this type of situation, they should have consulted with their labor law attorney on how to handle this.

Carl Kanowsky of Kanowsky & Associates is an attorney in the Santa Clarita Valley. He may be reached by e-mail at cjk@kanowskylaw.com or online through his law firm at www.kanowskylaw.com. Kanowsky’s column represents his own views, and not necessarily those of The Signal. Nothing contained herein shall be or is intended to be construed as providing legal advice.

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