Sometimes, employees complain about racial harassment but don’t sue right away. Don’t think the problem will go away just because no one has filed an EEOC complaint.
You’re asking for trouble if you don’t clean up the workplace and make everyone understand that racism is simply unacceptable.
Just one recent incident can dredge up (and bring into court proceedings) everything that’s happened in years past.
That’s because as long as the most recent incident is similar to past ones, employees can sue and point to the entire history of harassment.
Recent case: Dawn, who is black, worked for a school district for years. After losing her job, she filed an EEOC complaint and then a lawsuit alleging she had been forced to work in a racially hostile environment.
Only one example of the alleged harassment occurred within 300 days of her initial federal complaint. That was an incident in which a co-worker played a video clip from the 1974 movie “Blazing Saddles.” In it, a black sheriff trying to dodge the Ku Klux Klan steps out of hiding and calls out, “Hey, where are all the white women at?” Dawn claimed the co-worker had regularly played that clip for over a decade.
She then told the court about dozens of much earlier incidents, going back to at least 1999, that she found racially offensive and had complained about. For example, she said that:
- Co-workers had threatened to follow her husband into the bathroom to check out how well-endowed he might be.
- She had routinely been assigned to certain areas of the city to perform work because of her race.
- Co-workers had wondered how her husband could afford a new car and speculated that he must be a drug dealer.
- A co-worker once dressed up as Aunt Jemima.
- A co-worker, after commenting that the office thermostat was set “hotter than Africa,” had inserted a silver binder ring into her nose as a parody of African nose rings.
Dawn’s em-ployer argued that, except for the latest “Blazing Saddles” video clip, everything had occurred long before she filed her complaint and therefore shouldn’t be considered.
The court disagreed. It examined the video clip, found it racially offensive and concluded that the other incidents were similarly racially offensive. Dawn will be able to use every incident in her lawsuit to show she suffered for years in a racially hostile work environment and thatdidn’t stop it. (Scott-Iverson v. Independent Health Association, No. 13-0541, WD NY, 2014)
Final note: Always respond promptly to discrimination and harassment complaints. Include stereotyping in employee harassment training, explaining why even comedy can be offensive in the workplace. Don’t expect the problem to go away unless you become proactive and punish those who insist on continuing with offensive behavior they may believe is just good fun. It’s not; it’s just an open invitation to a lawsuit.