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Train Supervisors to Avoid Double-Meaning Words

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Hiring,Human Resources

A federal jury has awarded a Tyson Foods supervisor $1 million in his racial discrimination action against the chicken giant. The case, which wound its way from a federal district court all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court and back, illustrates the old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Had Tyson’s managers received training in how to talk to—and not talk to—their employees, the company might have avoided a costly award and the hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees this saga undoubtedly cost.

Recent case: John Hithon worked as a superintendent for Tyson when a shift manager position opened. The plant manager had referred to Hithon and other African-American workers as “boy” in the past. Hithon alleged this reference betrayed the manager’s prejudice against African-American workers. When the manager passed over Hithon in hiring a white shift supervisor with less experience, and then had Hithon train him, Hithon squawked.

Hithon filed a complaint under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the case eventually went to trial. The jury awarded both Hithon and co-worker Anthony Ash $1.5 million. The judge later vacated the verdict arguing that the difference between Hithon’s qualifications and white shift supervisor’s were not significant enough to support a discrimination charge. Similarly, the judge ruled that the manager’s use of “boy” was not discriminatory.

Appeals continued by both sides, all the way to the Supreme Court, where last year Hithon prevailed. Back went the case to the 11th Circuit, which ordered a new trial. That’s when the latest jury levied the $1 million judgment against Tyson.

Final note: The resolution of this case (for now—observers, of course, expect Tyson to appeal) makes this a good time to remind supervisors to speak professionally to employees at all times and to avoid even the appearance of racism in all comments.

Reason: The case shows that employees can successfully bring racial discrimination lawsuits to court even if the alleged racist comments don't specifically mention race. In various rulings, courts hearing the case said that tone and context can change the meaning of otherwise benign words, such as “boy” in this case, into more sinister ones.

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