It may be the phone call you most dread getting—an employee says the workplace is riddled with hostile behavior, from offensive graffiti in the restroom to racial slurs and innuendo. What’s your first move?
Ignoring complaints won’t make them go away. Instead, you need an action plan to deal immediately with the harassment. If the complaint is founded—if you see the graffiti, for example—get it removed immediately. Then call a meeting and explain there will be an investigation. Plus, reiterate your organization’s commitment to a harassment-free workplace.
Making light of the situation is definitely the wrong approach.
Recent case: Elbert Jeffery, who is black, worked as a dockworker for Yellow Transportation. He got into several fights at work and the company terminated him. That’s when he sued for racial harassment, complaining that he hadn’t challenged his termination because he simply couldn’t take the racially hostile work environment anymore.
It turns out that Jeffery had complained early and often toabout racial slurs and graffiti—showing a person hanging from the gallows with his nickname below. Jeffery even showed managers some of the drawings, but they did nothing.
Because management couldn’t present any evidence that it did anything about the complaints, the court ordered a trial. Now a jury will evaluate whether racial slurs and noose drawings created a hostile environment and will judge whether the employer reacted appropriately to Jeffery’s complaints. Want to bet on the outcome? (Jeffery v. Yellow Transportation, No. S-05-2306, ED CA, 2007)