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Isolated racist comments won’t always be discrimination

by on
in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

You know the workplace should be free of racially or sexually charged comments and that supervisors most certainly shouldn't engage in such banter. But you can't wipe prejudice out of every employee's mind.

One key point: It's just as important who makes comments as what those comments are.

One isolated racist remark likely won't lead to a lawsuit unless the speaker is also the ultimate decision-maker who then fires or otherwise discriminates against the employee.

Recent case: Lillian Phelps, an African-American female, worked for TXU Corporation as a product manager. Her boss was an African-American male.

Phelps's boss warned her that his supervisor (a white male) had told him that he "did not like aggressive women, especially not aggressive black women."

When the company downsized, Phelps was among those laid off. She sued, alleging race and sex discrimination. She claimed the white male supervisor who allegedly made the disparaging comments wanted her out.

But the company won the case because it could prove that Phelps's African-American boss made the actual layoff decision, not his white male supervisor. Because the decision-maker wasn't the source of the comment, the remark couldn't be the basis for a lawsuit. (Phelps v. TXU Corporation, No. 05-11299, 5th Cir., 2006)

Final tip: Although this employer wasn't held liable, it did still have to expend time, energy and money defending itself. The best policy is to train all employees in what's appropriate workplace banter.  

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