When an employee complains about racial insults, slurs or other insensitive comments, immediate action is imperative. That’s doubly true if any of the comments come from a supervisor.
Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. Instead, repeated comments over time—even when they aren’t outright slurs—can create a racially hostile work environment.
You may have read that stray comments aren’t enough to create liability. That’s true. However, when those comments are “pervasive and regular,” it’s another matter. And the line between stray and regular is anything but clear.
Recent case: Joan, who is black, sued her former employer, alleging among many claims that she had worked in a racially hostile environment. She claimed that over a three-year period, managers had consistently made discriminatory and derogatory comments about her race, including calling her “ghetto.” She testified that her supervisor said she knew what it is like “for people in the hood” and that “black people get too offended.”
Joan asserted she was “talked to abruptly, treated in a generally demeaning and condescending manner, and treated in a disparate manner” compared to younger, non-black co-workers. She also claimed younger non-black employees were not disciplined for the kinds of things she was punished for.
The court said that, taken together, the comments and actions could create a racially hostile work environment. The case will go to trial. (Dunn v. Bucks County Community College, No. 13-6726, ED PA, 2014)
Final note: It’s easy to overlook comments like the ones in this case because none of them were explicit racial slurs. Instead, the comments focused on preconceived notions about a protected class—stereotypes about black people. These are also offensive.