You’re almost guaranteed a messy lawsuit if you ignore an employee’s complaint that a supervisor used a racial epithet. Courts have ruled that even a single use of the N-word can be enough to create a racially hostile work environment when the speaker is a supervisor.
Recent case: Tara Williams, who is black, worked as a registered nurse for Mercy Health System.
Williams began having trouble almost immediately after she was hired, when a supervisor allegedly told her and her sister, who also worked for the health care operator, “You people cannot just be rolling out of bed at 12:00, you people cannot just be lazy.”
Williams began to complain about other incidents she believed were racially motivated, including disparate treatment of white and black nurses. For example, Williams said she had to use her vacation time to cover her hours when there wasn’t enough work, while white nurses did not.
Williams said that after her complaints, her supervisor began using racially derogatory names such as “coon” and the N-word.
During one telephone conversation, the supervisor allegedly referred to herself as a “guido” and told Williams she would “take care” of her. Williams took this as a reference to the Mafia and as a direct threat to harm her.
Still, when she complained to HR, she was told to take up the matter with her boss. Williams did speak with the supervisor, advising her that she was going to file an EEOC complaint. She followed through.
A few days later, she was fired, allegedly for cheating on a mileage reimbursement request and for failing to take a patient’s blood pressure. She says she never got a chance to explain herself and claimed that during the discharge meeting, she heard the N-word again, apparently whispered by her supervisor.
Williams sued, alleging racial discrimination, hostile work environment and retaliation. The court said the case should go to a jury trial.
The court was suspicious about the timing of the discipline, and because Williams wasn’t allowed to try to exonerate herself before being terminated.
The judge added that even a single use of vile racial epithets by a supervisor could alter the terms and conditions of employment, which is one of the requirements for a racially hostile work environment claim to succeed. The N-word itself is “steeped in racial animus and instantly separates an African-American from everyone else,” wrote the judge. (Williams v. Mercy Health System, No. 10-4834, ED PA, 2012)
Final notes: What went wrong in this case? For starters, HR should have thoroughly investigated Williams’ discrimination claims when she first raised them. It did not.
HR should not have passed Williams’ specific allegations about her supervisor’s language back to the same supervisor. That’s obviously ineffective and amounts to putting the fox in charge of the hen house.
Finally, before approving the discharge (apparently championed by the supervisor), HR should have conducted an independent investigation into the allegations against Williams. That should have included allowing her to tell her side of the story.
As it stands, any supervisor bias will likely create liability for the employer.
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