One person’s good-natured pet name may be another’s racist comment. You can — and should — create an anti-harassment policy that prohibits even what may appear to be innocent nicknames from being used in the workplace.
Distribute the policy widely and provide training on it. Then, if you have to fire an offending employee, you can argue that the employee committed willful misconduct, cutting your unemployment compensation liability.
The case: Crystal Williams, who is black, worked at Pittsburgh Medical Center. The hospital’s anti-harassment policy defines harassing conduct to include “nicknames, slurs, labels” and other derogatory speech. When Williams started referring to biracial children as “zebras,” a co-worker complained to HR. After an investigation,concluded Williams had violated the policy. The hospital fired her and she filed for unemployment.
Both the unemployment compensation referee and the Unemployment Compensation Board of Review said Williams committed willful misconduct by violating the policy. Now the Commonwealth Court has upheld their decision to deny her unemployment compensation. (Williams v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, No. 1961 C.D., 2006, Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, 2007)