Objects can become powerful symbols. That’s certainly true of nooses, which black Americans see as infamous reminders of a past in which lynchings were relatively common, especially in the South.
When a co-worker, or worse yet, a supervisor, makes mention of putting a rope around a black worker’s neck, that comment won’t be taken in jest. The employee may well have some family history involving a noose or at the very least will have heard stories of lynchings growing up.
That’s why you must instruct supervisors and managers: Any reference to hanging, ropes or nooses is absolutely forbidden in the workplace.
Recent case: Billy Lockett, who is black, worked for Chrysler at its Toledo machining facility. For three months in 2009, he had a new supervisor.
Lockett had to wear safety goggles while working. He asked his new supervisor to get him a pair. The supervisor did and Lockett jokingly said, “Why are you giving me these old granny glasses?” The supervisor, who later explained he was just joking, responded, “You’d complain if you got hung with a new rope.”
Lockett complained to his union representative, who urged the company to investigate the supervisor’s comment as racially insensitive. Chrysler did and the supervisor was disciplined with a written warning. Later, Lockett got into an argument with the supervisor, who allegedly called Lockett a “black motherf****r.”
Lockett sued, alleging a racially hostile work environment.
The court agreed that a jury could conclude the rope comment was racially hostile. It also said the rude comment was racial. Chrysler argued that it promptly disciplined the supervisor. Plus, this wasn’t a case where a rope had been actually displayed or placed around Lockett’s neck.
Chrysler won dismissal of the case. That’s because it took prompt action against the supervisor and because the two incidents were isolated and not indicative of an environment filled with racial hostility. (Lockett v. Zatco, et al., No. 3:10-CV-1024, ND OH, 2011)
Final note: When you offer harassment training, include a history of lynching. If the supervisor had never mentioned ropes or hanging, Chrysler would have saved itself time and money. Litigation, even when you win, is a losing proposition if you are on the receiving end.