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Worker doesn’t have to be minority to complain about racial harassment

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Here’s an important reminder that employees don’t have to be black to complain about racial harassment in the workplace and win a large jury award.

Recent case: Randy and Richard are white. They worked in maintenance at Riceland, a farmer-owned cooperative that mills, markets and sells rice.

In 2009, the men filed an internal grievance alleging that their supervisor said a black maintenance worker “smelled like a n****r.” The supervisor denied their charges. The men then filed a second grievance, alleging the supervisor used the term again during the investigation.

Eventually, HR investigated and concluded that the supervisor needed diversity training. They ordered him to take a computer-based training course to broaden his horizons.

Shortly after, both Randy and Richard lost their jobs in a reorganization. The supervisor was the one who suggested their termination.

They sued, alleging retaliation.

A jury believed their claims and awarded each of them back pay, plus $300,000. Riceland appealed, arguing that white workers aren’t entitled to collect damages for reporting racial slurs directed at black workers. The court disagreed and upheld the award.

As a small concession to the employer, it did say the workers weren’t entitled to additional punitive damages from the company. (Bennett, et al., v. Riceland Foods, et al., No. 12-1748, 8th Cir., 2013)

Final note: Remember, you are responsible for rogue managers’ actions. Terminating the only two employees who happened to have complained should have been a red flag for HR.

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