It’s easy to become isolated in the HR office, especially if you are physically separated from the shop floor or other work locations. So it should come as no surprise that some things that go on outside your limited view may mean trouble.
That’s why you need to keep open lines of communication between HR and the field. Make sure all employees know how and where to report sexually or racially hostile language or actions. Follow up when you get complaints.
Finally, don’t agree to be a rubber stamp for the disciplinary decisions of frontline managers. If an employee is accused of misbehavior, insist on playing a central role in carefully examining all the evidence. You don’t want to find out later that the employee you fired for poor behavior was brought to the breaking point by a cruel and discriminatory supervisor, as may have been the situation in the following case.
Recent case: Steve King worked for the city of Chicago as a truck driver. King claimed his supervisor constantly taunted him with racial epithets, including “coon,” “Sambo” and “black Otis.” He said the supervisor also called him the “n” word. King said he even used slurs over the two-way radio.
One day King had enough and shouted a string of obscenities back at his supervisor. The supervisor then suspended King because of his language. HR approved the suspension.
From then on, things went downhill, until King finally was fired—after he had filed racial harassment and discrimination claims with the EEOC and the state Department of Human Rights.
The court said the case warranted a trial, noting that even the one-time use of racial epithets by a supervisor can create a hostile environment. (King v. City of Chicago, No. 04-C-7796, ND IL, 2007)
Advice: Enforce a strict “no slurs” policy, and discipline accordingly.
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