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Saving grace: Hostile environment in one area can’t prove discrimination companywide

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Here’s a small measure of comfort if your company is caught in a hostile environment scandal involving a single division or facility: Employees who sue for discrimination in other departments, divisions or locations can’t use those cases against you in court unless they were directly affected by that particular hostile environment.

Recent case: As part of a long and complex employment discrimination case, employees who worked in one division at Nucor Steel showed they were subjected to a racially hostile work environment.

They told the court that Nucor allowed Confederate flags in the workplace and even sold them in the company store. In addition, the court heard that racial slurs were relatively common on walls in the restroom and that a rubber chicken was once hung in close proximity to a black employee.

Several black employees in other divisions tried to use the hostile environment in that division as evidence that the company as a whole discriminated in hiring and promotions.

The court refused to accept that evidence, reasoning that unless the employees could point to some sort of policy or practice that was responsible for the hostile work environment experienced by a few black employees, the company was only responsible for the harm in the single division. (Bennett, et al., v. Nucor Steel, No. 09-3831, 8th Cir., 2011)

Final note: Spot inspections can identify problem divisions, allowing you to fix the problem before it spreads elsewhere.

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