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One insensitive comment isn’t enough to create a hostile environment

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

People say stupid things all the time. When it happens at work, the consequences can be profound—especially if it’s a supervisor making overtly racist comments.

But many dumb slips of the tongue turn out to be merely insensitive, not malicious. As long as the comments don’t become frequent or more severe, there won’t usually be any lasting damage.

Recent case: Rickey, who is black, graduated from the Culinary Insti­­tute of America and became a culinary instructor at a Rochester high school. He earned fair reviews until the year before he was to become eligible for tenure. That’s when he got a new supervisor. At one point during the year, the boss mentioned how Rickey allegedly could only teach students how to cook “black food.”

When Rickey wasn’t granted tenure but was instead offered an additional year to prepare, he sued, alleging he had worked in a racially hostile environment. He cited the “black food” comment.

The court said one or two such statements might have been in poor taste but weren’t enough to create a hostile work environment. The case was dismissed. (Tolbert v. Smith, et al., No. 09-CV-6579, WD NY, 2014)

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