Some employees aren’t very sophisticated—so unsophisticated they may use terms they don’t fully realize are offensive to others. But ignorance is no excuse: You can and should punish employees who use language that stereotypes or demeans co-workers.
Your discipline won’t amount to labeling them as racists and defaming them.
Recent case: Charles Courie worked for Alcoa. One day, someone left an inappropriate note at a cafeteria table where black employees often ate their meals. HR investigated the incident and asked whether Courie had left the note.
Courie denied doing so, explaining that he had sat with another employee whose name he could not remember that day. When pressed, Courie told HR he had eaten lunch with a “Jew boy.”
Naturally, the HR rep told Courie the term was offensive. Courie protested that others used the same term, apparently not realizing he had said something truly offensive. Alcoa reprimanded Courie and warned him that the term he had used was offensive.
Courie ended up suing, alleging that the warning unfairly branded him as a racist. He said that was defamation. The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and dismissed the case. (Courie v. Alcoa, No. 07-4440, 6th Cir., 2009)
Final note: To avoid incidents like this, consider regular training for all employees on what is offensive. Employees need to understand that using offensive terms creates a hostile work environment and will not be tolerated.
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