Having trouble persuading upperto get proactive about harassment and hostility complaints? Remind them that ignoring such a problem will only make it fester—until someone decides to sue.
Recent case: When the EEOC received several complaints about working conditions at Spitzer Motor City, it began an investigation. What started out as a hostile work environment claim grew quickly.
It became apparent that some supervisors at the car dealer were taking every opportunity to demean workers based on their ethnicity, race, national origin and other protected characteristics. The EEOC sued on behalf of several employees.
David Marek, who was a detailer, is of Korean national origin. Co-workers testified that they heard a supervisor call Marek “slant eye” and “rice rat.” Marek said he was often called “Mr. Chinaman” and bosses used fake accents when saying things like “Chop chop, hurry up!” and “Wax on, wax off.” The comments, according to Marek, happened daily despite his complaints. He finally quit.
Spitzer employee Nick Hamdan is a native of Lebanon. He complained that he was often referred to as an angry Muslim, extremist, terrorist, uncivilized and a purveyor of magic carpets. In addition, he frequently complained to management about graffiti depicting an obscene stick figure with a turban and a magic carpet. Hamdan routinely erased the drawing and complained, but it continued to reappear, to the amusement of his supervisors.
Dean Okafor claimed that he was targeted because of his Nigerian national origin. He said he was often asked if he had a spear on his mantle or ate hyena. Okafor said he was called a monkey, gorilla and sometimes a pygmy. He said supervisors asked him when he stopped wearing a grass skirt and switched to clothes and made other offensive comments. When Okafor complained up the chain of command, he was told he was “thin skinned” and that his bosses didn’t mean any harm.
When the EEOC sued, Spitzer Motor City argued that some of the men never reported the alleged harassment and therefore depriving it of a chance to fix the problem.
But the court didn’t buy that argument, especially since Okafor clearly had complained and was then ridiculed for doing so. The court said the case should go to a jury trial. (EEOC, et al., v. Spitzer Management, No. 1:06-CV-2337, ND OH, 2012)
Final tips: Don’t mistake harassment for harmless fun. Courts won’t. Follow these tips for managing a potentially explosive problem:
- Act on the first report of harassment. Tell everyone that you won’t tolerate racial, ethnic or other harassing comments.
- Don’t take managers’ word for it that they have fixed harassment problems. Conduct spot inspections. Check back with employees to make sure things like graffiti don’t reappear.