Generally, a single racially charged incident won’t create a hostile work environment. But repeated or escalating incidents will. That’s why employers should take immediate, firm action to stop future problems.
Recent case: Reginald, who is black, drives a truck for UPS. His truck is loaded, sometimes at night, in a UPS depot. When he was first assigned to one facility, he discovered someone had put a banana in his truck. He reported the incident. Soon, the bananas began appearing regularly, never in anyone else’s truck. He complained again.
Things escalated. One day, several co-workers arrived at work wearing Confederate flag shirts, and bananas showed up in Reginald’s truck that day. After Reginald filed another complaint, the same men approached him in the dark and asked if he had complained about the bananas. One was holding a metal object at his side. Reginald walked away, but the incident frightened him.
He sued, alleging a hostile work environment.
Because employees have to prove both that they themselves felt the environment was hostile and that a reasonable employee would feel the same, the court focused on how events would have looked to a reasonable employee.
It concluded that a reasonable employee might view the increasing banana incidents, the appearance of clothing emblazoned with the Confederate flag and a confrontation at night with co-workers holding a potential weapon as a hostile environment. A jury will now decide. (Jones v. UPS, No. 11-10416, 11th Cir., 2012)