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Name-calling may be just the tip of the iceberg

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Firing,Human Resources

If you are receiving reports that a manager or supervisor is engaging in name-calling, look beyond the obvious problem. It just may be that discrimination is a pervasive problem. It’s your job to bring it to light before it’s too late.

Consider this recent case, in which a supervisor was not just calling his subordinate names, but perhaps also engaging in age, religious, national origin and other discrimination.

Recent case: Nidal is a Muslim American of Palestinian origin over the age of 50. Over the course of two stints, he worked as the business manager in the finance department of an auto dealership. He was fired the first time when a new management team decided Nidal’s $20,000 per month pay was too high. He was then rehired at a lower base pay.

Nidal claimed that during this second period of employment, which lasted about half a year, he was regularly subjected to name-calling. For example, he said that his supervisor regularly called him “towelhead,” “rag­­head,” “rock thrower,” and “f***ing” Palestinian or Muslim. Plus, he endured comments about food smelling like “camel s***” and being a “s***head.” He was also referred to as the “old man,” and work-related oversights were blamed on his age.

In court documents, Nidal would later say that to avoid the constant name-calling, he locked himself into his office and tried to avoid interacting with co-workers as much as possible. He likened the office to a “war zone” and said he felt trapped when the supervisor insisted on entering his office to talk. Nidal also said that while the taunts didn’t actually affect his work, he did feel stressed and emotionally scarred by it.

Nonetheless, he continued to earn bonuses and hit performance targets. Plus, he received good reviews for his customer service.

Then, after the company allegedly received customer complaints about his finance practices, his supervisor fired him.

Nidal sued, alleging he had been forced to work in a hostile work environment and had been terminated because of his age, race or other protected characteristics.

The auto dealership tried several legal tactics. First, it argued that the name-calling wasn’t so bad that a reasonable employee would perceive it as harassment. Plus, it was clear that Nidal’s performance hadn’t been affected.

The court said Nidal had a case. First, the name-calling was frequent and severe and a hypothetical reasonable employee might very well have perceived it as harassment. Plus, the employer wasn’t let off the hook just because Nidal’s actual performance didn’t suffer. Experiencing emotional distress is enough. The case will now go to a jury. (Alzuraqi v. Group I Automotive, No. 3:12-CV-223, ND TX, 2013)

Final note: Never tolerate offensive name-calling. If an employee reports such problems, investigate immediately and thoroughly. Ask other em­­ployees what they have heard. (In this case, several co-workers confirmed Nidal’s basic account, although they said they heard the name-calling less frequently than he reported.)

If your investigation confirms a problem, immediately take steps to stop it. Discipline the employees. Then check for any later retaliation. Plus, make sure that any subsequent disciplinary action against the em­­ployee is grounded in carefully documented facts.

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