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Prevent hostile-environment lawsuits: No teasing allowed

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in Discrimination and Harassment,HR Management,Human Resources

Many employees today are sensitive about their ethnic backgrounds, but may hesitate to report teasing or name-calling for fear of being seen as troublemakers. That means a lawsuit could be brewing.

That’s why it’s important for you to emphasize that even good-natured teasing about ethnicity or any protected category (e.g., age, sex, religion) has no place in the world of work.

Advice: Minimize the risk that even innocent remarks could grow into a hostile-environment lawsuit by regu-larly reminding supervisors that there’s zero tolerance for comments about ethnicity.

Recent case: Salwa Levsey, who was born in Egypt, worked for the Callegus Municipal Water District in
the finance department. When a new receptionist arrived, it was quickly clear that Levsey and the new hire did not get along. A supervisor suggested the two have lunch together and air their differences.

At the lunch, the receptionist told Levsey “you people are horrible.” Levsey took this as a reference to her Arab ethnicity.

Levsey also told HR about several other incidents involving other employees. For example, when two field workers suggested in vulgar language that she should go back to where she came from, Levsey reacted by explaining she was a refugee and a Christian. The discussion ended on a pleasant note when the workers said that they were unaware of her status or discrimination against Egyptian Christians.

Levsey suggested HR remind employees not to make ethnic comments, and HR did exactly that. Then the receptionist charged Levsey with sexual harassment. HR investigated and urged the two employees to attend communications training.

Levsey sued, alleging her employer allowed a hostile-work environment in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). The California Court of Appeal dismissed the case. It concluded that HR took appropriate action to investigate and educate co-workers on ethnic discrimination. (Levsey v. Callegus Municipal Water District, No. B188218, California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, 2007)

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