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Manager’s racist comment may seal the deal on hostile environment

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If you don’t punish it right away, even a single racist comment by a manager can result in an employee filing a racially hostile environment claim.

Here’s why: If the employee on the receiving end is also being dealt with harshly by her boss, she can effectively link the comment with the other poor treatment. If a reasonable employee would be convinced that the total conduct changed the terms and conditions of employment, the case will probably go to trial.

Recent case: Pearline Liburd, who is black, worked for the Bronx Lebanon Hospital Center, managing one of its HIV programs. Liburd had trouble with her supervisor from Day One, when he allegedly began an unpleasant campaign to get rid of her.

She claimed he said he wanted her “black ass” out of his division. Liburd then apparently started cataloging other incidents of poor treatment. She told the court she had been excluded from meetings. Some of the programs she administered were cut. Her supervisor used a “harsh tone” when speaking to her. He threatened to transfer her to another section during an “abusive tirade.” He demanded to know when she was going to lunch. He asked another employee to help him find ways to fire her. And he eventually followed her everywhere she went, including into the ladies’ room.

The court said, “A reasonable employee could find that the cumulative effect of such treatment amounted to a turn for the worse in her employment.” The straw that broke the camel’s back: The manager allegedly using the phrase “black ass,” which helped bring the hostility into a racial realm. The court ordered a trial. (Liburd v. Bronx Lebanon Hospital Center, No. 07-Civ-11316, SD NY, 2008)

Note: Hot-tempered supervisors almost always spell trouble of some kind.

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