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.
- How to Fire an Employee the Legal Way: 6 Termination Guidelines
- Loose lips lead to liability when word of alleged employee wrongdoing leaks out
- Is it really a policy if it's not in your handbook?
- Following EEOC victory, carefully consider conditions you include in last-chance agreements
- And to think the original idea was to reduce litigation!