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Stamp out harassment fast–or risk EEOC case that snowballs out of control

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training

You may think you have a problem when a single employee complains to the EEOC that he’s been the victim of race discrimination, harassment or some other form of bias. That’s nothing compared to what happens when that one complaint mushrooms into a class-action lawsuit.

That can easily happen if harassment involves such flashpoints as hangman’s nooses, racially derogatory comments, racial epithets or graffiti.

Remember, the EEOC has investigative powers and may demand access to your employment records—seeking the names and addresses of all black employees who work or have worked at your company. That should be a powerful enough reason to be proactive about eliminating anything that smacks of racial harassment.

Recent case: When several black employees went to the EEOC with allegations that Yellow Transportation allowed a racially hostile work environment to exist, the agency launched an investigation.

Ultimately, 14 black employees signed on to the complaint. The EEOC requested permission from the court to represent all similarly situated black employees after hearing that the facility in question had racist graffiti and that black employees were called racially charged names and had to endure the presence of hangman’s nooses in the workplace.

The EEOC wanted a complete list of all black employees who had worked at the facility between 2004 and 2009. The company balked, arguing that there was no evidence, for example, that blacks in management had been subjected to racism. But the court said the agency had the right to look at all positions within the facility. (EEOC v. Yellow Transportation, et al., No. 09-C-7693, ND IL, 2010)

Final note: To understand the implication of a noose in the workplace, consider that between 1882 and 1968, almost 3,500 black Americans died at the hands of lynch mobs. Billy Holiday’s classic song “Strange Fruit” tells the story of a lynching; the “strange fruit” are bodies hanging in the trees. James Baldwin’s classic short story “Going to See the Man” tells the story of a lynching in graphic detail. Many blacks still carry these images with them, which is why a noose is so disturbing.

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