The key to preventing most harassment lawsuits lies in properly handling the situation when you first learn of a problem. A quick and effective response that stops the hostility right away is essential.
Recent case: Tyrone Murry, who is black, was hired to work as an engineer on a North Carolina project managed by AT&T. There, he encountered two AT&T employees who acted as supervisors and who apparently had a bad attitude in general toward contract employees.
During a work-sponsored Thanksgiving luncheon, Murry and another black man entered a restaurant accompanied by two white women. One of the AT&T supervisors commented, “This is why we kill the black squirrels, for mixing with the white squirrels.” The supervisor later said he had just been kidding, and that the comment was an expansion of a story told the day before about killing a black squirrel that was attacking an albino squirrel in his driveway.
Murry complained to his own supervisor, who complained to HR at AT&T. AT&T told its supervisors that their behavior was inappropriate and warned them that the company anti-discrimination policy prohibited racial comments, whether joking or not.
Murry didn’t hear any more comments or experience further harassment. He did, however, sue both companies, alleging racial harassment.
The court dismissed his suit, reasoning that while the comment was offensive, the companies both took quick and deliberate action to end any escalation. (Murry v. Jacobs Technologies, et al., No. 1:10-CV-771, MD NC, 2012)