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Stopping Harassment: Are Verbal Reprimands Worth Your Breath?

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in Case In Point

When it comes to stopping employees from harassing each other, you can probably think of a lot of actions to take. On one end of the spectrum is termination (“You’re fired!”). At the other end is a verbal reprimand (“Stop it!”). But will a judge think a verbal reprimand is enough? One court recently did … and it saved the employer $510,000. You don’t say? 

Case in Point: Nadiya Boldware, who is black, worked as an assistant district attorney in Texas. One day, a white assistant district attorney talking to her about a case said the facts, “made him understand why people hung people from trees.” He added that the case made him “want to go home and put on his white pointy hat.”

Boldware left the office upset. Her colleague sent her an email apologizing for his comments. Later that day, Boldware also reported the incident to her supervisor.

The next morning, the supervisor held a face-to-face meeting with the two. Then, the supervisor gave the offending co-worker a verbal reprimand and required him to participate in diversity training.

Three months later, Boldware overheard the same co-worker asking someone to borrow a “boombox” for a trail. Then she overheard him say, “I better watch what I say or else I’ll have to take another one of those classes.” 

Boldware reported the “boombox incident” to her supervisor. She also reported that yet a different co-worker called her a “troublemaker” based on the first incident. HR took action and sent that employee to diversity training, too.

Boldware filed suit against her employer for racial harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The jury agreed that she worked in a racially-hostile workplace and awarded her $510,000.

But the employer appealed, arguing that because the supervisor and HR took “prompt remedial action” to protect Boldware, they were entitled to win the case.

The result: The reprimand saved the day! The judge reversed the jury’s verdict noting, “Employers are not required to impose draconian penalties upon the offending employee in order to satisfy this court's prompt remedial action standard and a reprimand may qualify if the offending conduct was infrequent or isolated.” (Williams-Boldware v. Denton Cnty., 5th Cir., 1/31/14)

3 Lessons Learned … Without Going to Court

  1. Look at your organization closely. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has an initiative to investigate if charges of harassment and discrimination are “systemic” in an organization. In this case, the judge made the same inquiry observing, “These incidents did not involve a protracted outpouring of racially invidious harassment that required large-scale institutional reform.”
  2. Look at your clock very closely. The magic number is 24. The judge underscored how quickly the employer responded to the complaint by taking action in “’less than 24 hours.”
  3. Look at your training even closer. The judge noted the mandatory diversity training was effective because there were no further incidents. Make sure all your employment-related training takes a pulse on current issues to prevent bad behavior and stop it in its tracks.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Annie February 14, 2014 at 4:40 pm

The law seems transparent regarding racial slurs, but what about religious slurs? Is there any protection for employees against a hostile working environment where religious discrimination exists?

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