When co-workers engage in racial harassment, act fast to remove offensive symbols

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in Leaders & Managers,Management Training

Employers can escape liability for employees’ racist actions if they can show they acted quickly to stop any potentially race-based harassment such as graffiti or offensive symbols.

Recent case: Charles Alford, who is black, worked as the operator of a stone crusher his employer leased to various construction project sites. At one location, Alford discovered a black hooded sweatshirt hanging from a noose, which he believed was designed to scare him. He complained to his employer.

Almost immediately, management investigated and removed what looked to Alford like the effigy of a black man being lynched. Several white co-workers admitted they had constructed the display, but denied any racial motivation. They claimed they were just joking around. Management told them they would be terminated if it happened again.

Alford refused to go back and instead sued, alleging racial harassment.

But the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed his case. It reasoned that the employer had acted immediately to remove the noose and investigate, plus had taken steps to prevent any further problems. That’s exactly what the law requires when co-workers harass. (Alford v. Martin & Gass, et al., No. 09-1134, 4th Cir., 2010)

Final note: Treat every incident involving ropes and nooses seriously. They are one of the most frightening symbols for black Americans. Many have heard stories of ancestors being lynched at the end of a rope. If you include some history in your training, there should never be an excuse for “jokes.”

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