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.
Immediately address any complaints about nooses in the workplace. Also make sure no employee is punished for reporting the presence of a noose.
Recent case: Of 150 employees at a Luminant Power facility, Anthony Carter was one of only two black workers. Early on, it became evident that some supervisors were less than thrilled to have any black employees at all.
For example, during a training session, the instructor suggested that they needed to put some “bleach in the gene pool.”
After the 2008 presidential election, a supervisor stated, “I got two shotguns. You take one. I’ll take the other. Let’s go take our country back.”
Then a noose appeared in the bathroom and someone, asked over the radio about Carter’s whereabouts, announced, “We hung him.”
Carter complained. Then, a short time later, he was terminated for refusing to sign a warning that criticized his attendance.
He sued, alleging both a hostile work environment and retaliation. Carter’s lawsuit noted that white employees with similar attendance records were not written up.
The court said that a noose in the workplace is never appropriate and that both Carter’s hostile environment claim and retaliation claim could go to trial. (Carter v. Luminant Power Services Company, No. 3:10-CV-1486, ND TX, 2011)
Final note: Include a history of lynching in harassment training (see box below). Had the supervisor never said anything about ropes or hanging, Luminant would have saved itself time and money. Even if you win, litigation is an expensive and losing proposition for employers.