Employers can’t guarantee that employees will never feel offended by a co-worker’s comment about race, ethnicity, sex or other protected characteristics. But employers can and should make sure employees know what to do if they do feel offended or harassed—and then track exactly how the matter was handled.
By tracking complaints, employers have an easier time showing that any prejudiced comments or harassing incidents were isolated, and not severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile environment.
Recent case: Gertha White, who is black, worked for Honda for many years and amassed an abysmal disciplinary history that included punishment for poor attendance and poor quality control. Honda disciplined White 41 times before finally discharging her.
That’s when she sued, alleging she had been subjected to racial harassment and a hostile work environment.
White charged that a co-worker had once told her that she didn’t want to hear anything about slavery. Another time a co-worker suggested she could use “black magic” to restart a machine. Finally, another co-worker said, “Most black people have AIDS.” White complained only about the second incident.
The court concluded that the incidents were isolated and not severe enough to create a racially hostile environment. (White v. Honda of America, No. C2-07-216, SD OH, 2009)
Final note: It never hurts to be proactive. Conduct regular floor inspections to make sure there’s no graffiti or other offensive material around.
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