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Limit hostile environment liability by getting to the bottom of every harassment complaint

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in Discrimination and Harassment,HR Management,Human Resources

It’s up to employers to make sure their workplaces are free of racial harassment. Watch out if you’re not willing to do everything in your power to prevent a racially hostile environment. Courts simply won’t tolerate it.

In many cases, it takes only two incidents of harassment for a judge or jury to conclude that a workplace is hostile.

That low threshold makes it essential for HR to follow up on every harassment complaint. Investigate and punish those found to be responsible for harassment. Then check back with the victim to make sure you’ve resolved the complaint to his or her satisfaction.

Recent case: Quentin La Grande, who is black, worked for Decrescente Distributing. He claimed that a co-worker made racially based comments about black men “being lazy” and about black men “using white females to take care of them.”

La Grande complained to HR, but claimed he was told nothing would be done. Then, seven months later, a company manager allegedly threatened him and called him the N-word.

The racial epithet, La Grande claimed, made it impossible for him to continue working at Decrescente. He sued.

The court that heard the case dismissed it, saying the situation wasn’t severe enough to constitute a racially hostile environment.

Now the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals had reversed that decision and reinstated the lawsuit. The appeals court said, “Perhaps no single act can more quickly alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive working environment than the use of an unambiguous racial epithet such as ‘n*****’ by a supervisor in the presence of his subordinates.” (La Grande v. Decrescente Distribution, No. 08-3010, 2nd Cir., 2010)

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