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One slur won’t create a hostile environment

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

There’s no need to panic if you find out a supervisor or manager has made a stupid comment about someone’s protected characteristic. Just make sure you fix the situation so it never happens again.

Courts don’t expect workplaces to be places of complete harmony—but they do expect employers to take complaints seriously. They want to see that bosses are disciplined when they make offensive comments.

Recent case: Lisa worked for seven years at an oral surgery clinic, receiving excellent reviews the whole time. However, she did not get along well with a new supervisor. While Lisa was on a business trip with a co-worker named Tyisha, who is black, the supervisor stated, “I don’t have anything in common with those people.” Both Lisa and Tyisha took that as a comment about black people; both were offended.

Another co-worker told some of the doctors in the practice about the incident, which upset the supervisor. She told Lisa that the comment was innocent, that she meant no harm and that she had black friends.

Sometime later, Lisa was fired, allegedly for getting into an argument with a co-worker who was much younger than Lisa.

She sued, alleging age discrimination and that she had been forced to work in a hostile environment. She based her hostile environment claim on the supervisor’s comment about “those people.”

The court threw out the hostile environment claim. It reasoned that one offensive comment simply isn’t enough to make the environment hostile. (Steinagel v. Valley Oral Surgery, No. 12-CV-05645, ED PA, 2013)

Final note: The court did give the green light for Lisa’s age discrimination claim. Lisa was fired for the argument with a much younger co-worker. The other participant in the argument, how­­­­ever, wasn’t disciplined at all.

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