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Even ‘nontargets’ can sue for hostile environment

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

Hopefully, you already take any discrimination or harassment complaints from minority employees seriously. But what if a white male blows the whistle about race discrimination he sees affecting his minority co-workers? How seriously must you take his complaints? Very seriously, if you want to avoid a federal discrimination suit.

The EEOC has begun an aggressive effort to encourage lawsuits by nonminority "whistle-blowers" who observe what they perceive as a racially hostile work environment. The EEOC is encouraging such lawsuits and, sometimes, even ?works with the employees' attorneys in court. Your best bet: Investigate any complaints about a racially hostile work environment, no matter who makes the complaint.

Recent case: Dennis Walker, who is a white male, complained to the warehouse manager that his African-American co-workers were discriminated against based on their race. He told management that other white workers sang racially derogatory songs, referred to African-Americans as "monkeys" and scrawled offensive graffiti. He never complained that the harassment affected him personally.

When management ignored Walker's complaints, he went to the EEOC. The agency investigated and concluded that his complaints were valid. Walker then filed a federal lawsuit, but both a lower court and a federal appeals court tossed out his suit on a technicality: Walker hadn't proved that the harassment of his African-American co-workers was severe enough to affect his own work.

While the court dismissed this case, its ruling practically invited other "nonprotected" employees to champion the rights of racial minorities, women, the disabled and other protected classes in the workplace. The court hinted that if Walker had claimed that he personally had suffered from discrimination because of his association with the African-American employees, it might have allowed his case to go to trial. (Walker v. Mueller Industries, et al., No. 03-4012, 7th Cir., 2005)

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