You can’t fire everyone who makes a stupid comment—or even two. But you also can’t ignore insensitive or offensive speech, just hoping for the best. That could encourage the errant employee and create a hostile work environment for another.
The best approach is direct: Pull the employee aside and explain that neither you nor the company tolerate racist, sexist, ageist or other offensive comments. Explain the disciplinary consequences. Get the employee to agree it won’t happen again. Follow through if it does.
Recent case: Lolita, who is black, worked as a registered nurse at a hospital. When she overheard what she considered an offensive comment, she identified the offending co-worker to her supervisor and made it clear that she was offended.
The supervisor immediately held a “coaching session” with the co-worker, explaining that the comment was offensive and violated company policy.
Two years later, Lolita asked the supervisor to remove any mention of the coaching session from her co-worker’s employment file.
Then, when Lolita faced a write-up for, she reported two other incidents. She said her co-worker had also made derogatory comments about Mexicans, Asians and Jews. She also recounted what she considered a racist comment: The co-worker said she worried that drugs she received during a medical procedure might have made her utter racial slurs while unconscious.
Then Lolita sued, alleging that she had been forced to work in a racially hostile environment.
The court dismissed her complaint, reasoning that the supervisor had acted reasonably by counseling the commenting co-worker. It wouldn’t consider the other alleged comments because Lolita hadn’t complained at the time they occurred, and even went so far as to ask the supervisor to delete the earlier discipline from her co-worker’s record. That’s hardly consistent with a hostile work environment. (Henley v. Novant Health, No. 1:12-CV-62, MD NC, 2013)