All employees, regardless of which protected class they belong to, have the right to work in an environment free from hostility. That doesn’t mean, however, that you have to fire every co-worker who does something that might be interpreted as hostile.
As long as your actions are reasonably calculated to end the hostile environment, you have a good defense.
Sometimes the appropriate response is to reprimand the co-worker and educate her so she’ll change her ways.
Recent case: Dewitt Taylor, who is black, worked for a temporary staffing company. One of his co-workers decided to celebrate Taylor’s birthday by making him a hand-drawn card. She wrote, “Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you, You look like a monkey and smell like one too.” She signed her name and left it on Taylor’s desk.
Needless to say, Taylor found the card insensitive and offensive. He complained to, which immediately started an investigation. Several days later, Taylor found out the co-worker had been reprimanded and sent to undergo training on the company’s harassment guidelines.
Taylor sued, alleging that he had been forced to work in a racially hostile environment.
Taylor was eventually terminated for alleged disruptive behavior, including slamming his fists on his desk and allegedly expressing support for the perpetrator of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting rampage.
Taylor added a retaliation claim to his suit, saying he was fired for complaining about the card and disruptive acts he said he never committed.
On the hostile environment claim, the court ruled in the employer’s favor, noting that it investigated right away and punished the offensive behavior in a way designed to stop any further harassment. On the other hand, it sent the retaliation claim to trial. (Taylor v. JFC Staffing, et al., No. 08-1610, MD PA, 2009)
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