It’s great that you have a hostile work environment policy in place and cover it in your training. But none of that will do you much good if supervisors remain oblivious. If hostile acts occur despite your policy, it won’t provide much protection.
That’s why you must be proactive. Don’t just give lip service to forbidden harassment and discrimination.
Recent case: Vickie was one of just two black women at her CSX Transportation work location. The company has a policy against any kind of racial discrimination and harassment. However, it didn’t provide much formal training about that policy.
Vickie complained that she was being treated worse than her white co-workers and had received unfair evaluations.
Suddenly, her work situation took a disturbing turn. Her car was vandalized shortly after she complained—someone painted a graffiti warning aimed at Vickie and included a racial slur with the statement.
When she looked in the back seat of the car, she found a mannequin’s head with a noose tied around its neck. Vickie never returned to work.
She instead sued, alleging race discrimination and that she had worked in a racially hostile work environment.
CSX argued that it had a clear policy that prohibited race discrimination and harassment. However, the court learned that the policy wasn’t strictly enforced and that supervisors weren’t trained on the policy and how to enforce it.
The court left it up to a jury to decide whether CSX either condoned the vandalism or knew that Vickie’s supervisors were somehow involved in the incident.
The jury sided with Vickie, concluding that the vandalism most likely was the work of her supervisors as retaliation for her complaints. While there wasn’t any direct evidence they were involved, the timing and location of the car were enough circumstantial evidence for the jury to conclude that supervisors had played at least some part.
The jury awarded Vickie $150,000 for her pain and suffering. Then the trial court added full back pay, plus lost future wages, based on Vickie’s estimate of how long she said she planned to work for CSX if she hadn’t been the victim of harassment.
The company appealed, to no avail. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals said the jury had spoken, and that its conclusions were within the realm of reasonable conclusions based on available evidence. (Bennett v. CSX Transportation, 5:10-CV-493, ED NC, 2012)
Final note: You may be wondering how you can prevent shocking incidents like this one. After all, it’s entirely possible that a supervisor may be a closet racist who won’t listen to any amount of training about race discrimination.
Such incidents rarely occur in a vacuum. How you handle milder forms of harassment sets the tone.
Do you punish anyone caught harassing employees? Do you base appraisals on managers’ support for core principles like equal opportunity hiring, training and assessment? Have you set up deterrents like security cameras in the parking lot and common areas? Do you make unannounced inspections for graffiti and the like?
Addressing these issues shows you are serious about discouraging incidents like the one in this case.
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