It is generally agreed that anti-discrimination laws don’t create a general code requiring workplace civility. Employees are expected to put up with the usual tribulations of the workplace—the sporadic use of course language, offhand comments or jokes, occasional teasing, petty slights, minor annoyances and the simple lack of good manners.
Harassment lawsuits won’t normally fly unless the abuse is objectively and subjectively severe or pervasive enough to alter the terms and conditions of one’s employment.
A recent case, Williams v. CSX Transp. Co. (No. 09-5564, 6th Cir., 2011), illustrates these principles in action.
In that case, the federal 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of a racial harassment claim, confirming the long-standing principle that the anti-discrimination laws are not codes of workplace civility.
Black, white, blue, red
The harassment allegations in the lawsuit focused on a two-day period in 2004.
According to Stephanie Williams, who is black, two supervisors, Jeff Wingo and Tim Magargle, were watching the Republican National Convention on TV in a CSX break room. When Williams entered the room, she said she did not want to watch it.
Wingo allegedly told Williams that she was a Democrat only because she was a black woman, that unmarried women cannot “have the love of God in their heart” and that it would be best to “get rid of” Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton because without those two “monkeys” the country “would be a whole lot better.”
The following day, Williams alleged, Wingo told her that if she returned to school, she would not have to pay for her education because she was a single black mother.
Williams also claimed that six months prior, Wingo also asked her why black people cannot name their children “stuff that people can pronounce, like John or Sue,” and told her that black people should “go back to where [they] came from.”
Williams used an internal hotline to complain about the alleged harassment, but contended that CSX did nothing about the incidents.
‘Despicable’ vs. ‘severe’
In upholding the trial court’s dismissal of Williams’ harassment claim, the 6th Circuit distinguished between comments that are despicable and comments that are so severe or pervasive that they change the terms and conditions of one’s employment:
It said the supervisors’ statements were isolated, not pervasive: all but two occurred over a two-day period. Nor were they sufficiently “severe” for Williams to be able to prevail on a racially hostile work environment claim.
Those statements—for example, calling Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton “monkeys” and saying that black people should “go back to where [they] came from”—are certainly insensitive, ignorant and bigoted. But they more closely resemble a “mere offensive utterance” than conduct that is “physically threatening or humiliating.”
Just because isolated statements might not subject an employer to liability does not mean they should be ignored. To the contrary, the fact that the employer in Williams ignored an anonymous call into its ethics hotline likely caused Williams to file the lawsuit.
Compare the employer’s reaction in Williams to that of the employer in Hargrette v. RMI Titanium Co. (No. 2009-T-0058, Court of Appeals of Ohio, 11th District, 2010) to an altercation between employees which culminated in a white employee calling a black employee the N-word.
The argument resulted in three-day suspensions for both employees. The court in Hargrette concluded that the racist remark appeared to be an isolated incident, following testimony by the black employee that his white co-worker had never used the epithet before.
But the key difference between these two cases is that in Hargrette,investigated as soon as it learned of the incident and immediately suspended the white employee.
In Williams, seven years passed and CSX likely spent hundreds of thousands of dollars before prevailing on the racial harassment claim.
I will let you decide whether ignoring the anonymous tip was worth the cost.
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