Your best defense against a hostile environment claim is proof that you took quick and effective steps to stop the hostility. But courts won't look kindly on your efforts if you stop a harassing incident once but ignore subsequent flare-ups. As the following case shows, a "We dealt with it once" argument won't fly and may actually incite more legal wrath.
Recent case: An African-American employee complained about racist graffiti in the men's restroom, so his employer promptly painted over it.
The graffiti reappeared, this time with a specific threat: It said, "kill all n•*****" and included the employee's name. He complained again. But this time, his supervisor shrugged it off, allegedly saying, "I got it off once. What do you want me to do, tear the wall down?"
Result: The graffiti stayed on the wall for five more months until the employee resigned. He sued alleging hostile work environment.
While a lower court tossed out the case, a federal appeals court let it go to trial, saying the company's reaction to the second incident was sorely lacking, especially because the graffiti amounted to a death threat. In fact, the court said the company's response was "probably worse than no response at all." (Reedy v. Quebecor Printing Eagle Inc., No. 02-3637, 8th Cir., 2004)
Final points: If an employee directs hostility at a co-worker, use your anti-harassment and anti-violence policies to initiateright away. Tell managers to remain on constant vigil for additional outbursts, then respond immediately to those outbursts. Also, ask employees to report visual examples of harassment, such as graffiti, then make sure it's erased as soon as possible.
This case also shows that racist harassment that contains physical threats is much more likely to create a hostile work environment, especially if it's not quickly removed and dealt with decisively.