What seems like a joke to members of the majority can be deeply hurtful to members of a minority. These days, that’s a particular issue in areas with a large concentration of people of Middle Eastern heritage—such as Michigan.
As the “war on terror” shows no signs of abating, it makes sense to remind managers and supervisors to stay away from any comments on ethnicity, including jokes about airport security and the like.
Recent case: Kenneth Eid worked for Saint-Gobain Abrasives for years and generally was well-liked. Eid, who was born in the United States, is Arab-American and practices the Eastern Orthodox faith. He also has a dark complexion.
Eid began having trouble with a white supervisor (nicknamed “the Swede” because of his ethnicity) who made comments suggesting Arabs should be deported. The supervisor also said that white males couldn’t get into Yale because of all the affirmative action plans that favored minority applicants at the expense of white males.
But that wasn’t all. The supervisor also commented to co-workers who traveled on business that they should stay away from Eid at the airport since his “swarthy” complexion would mean delays at airport security screenings.
Then Eid’s performance allegedly deteriorated and the company claimed it was getting complaints about his attitude.
When he was placed on a last-chance performance improvement plan, he finally complained toabout some of the comments his supervisor allegedly had made.
But no one investigated, and management later told the court that Eid didn’t provide enough information for an investigation.
Saint-Gobain eventually fired Eid, and he sued for race and national origin discrimination. Eid presented to the court an e-mail he had sent the day after he complained to management about the discrimination. It listed those attending a meeting at which some of the comments allegedly were made.
Eid also pointed to other employees who had the same or similarbut were not told their jobs were at risk. Finally, he got testimony from customers contradicting the alleged complaints his supervisor said Eid had received.
The court ordered a trial. (Eid v. Saint-Gobain Abrasives, No. 06-12392, ED MI, 2007)
Advice: This employer made several mistakes. The case demonstrates why someone in HR needs to stay on top of things.
Here are some tips for avoiding a maelstrom:
- Before authorizing a performance improvement plan, make certain that other employees with similar problems also have been placed on performance improvement plans.
- Respond immediately to any discrimination complaints with a full and complete investigation. You cannot tell the employee to do your investigative work for you.
- Make spot inspections for signs of a hostile work environment (e.g., look for posters, cartoons or other offensive material on bulletin boards or in work spaces).
- Consider getting 360-degree feedback on all supervisors. Include questions about their attitudes toward women, minorities and people with other protected characteristics.
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