It’s understandable that employees might get angry if they perceive that co-workers are harassing them. But that doesn’t justify a violent reaction.
When alleged victims of harassment lash out, you can and should punish them. But even as you discipline the angry worker, make sure you also do whatever you can to end the harassment that precipitated the violent response.
Otherwise, it may look as if you’re punishing the victim—and that could easily trigger a retaliation lawsuit.
Recent case: Exantus Exemplaire, who is a black man of Haitian origin, worked at the Harbor Bar & Brasserie Restaurant. He claimed that Latino, nonblack and non-Haitian co-workers constantly harassed him. For example, Exemplaire claimed that a bartender, cashier, bus boy and server frequently used the epithet “Haitian f**k” when addressing him.
Exemplaire complained to.
Although it had no corroborating evidence of the name-calling, the restaurant gave everybody sensitivity training and warned them that racially based name-calling would not be tolerated.
Meanwhile, management investigated complaints from several of Exemplaire’s co-workers that he had hit them. Exemplaire admitted to punching and jabbing his co-workers, but said it was to stop their name-calling. The restaurant then fired Exemplaire for violent behavior.
Exemplaire sued, alleging that he had been subjected to a racially hostile environment and had been fired for complaining.
But the court dismissed his case. It reasoned that, if what he reported was true, the workplace might certainly have been unpleasant, but it didn’t rise to the level of a hostile environment. Plus, the restaurant had a legitimate reason for the termination—his admitted angry response. (Exemplaire v. Harbor Bar & Brasserie Restaurant, No. 09-CV-2693, DC NJ, 2010)
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