Act fast to investigate, correct hostile work environment signs

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

It’s not unusual to read about racially motivated incidents that occur at work. Slurs, graffiti and other acts of intimidation can lead to hostile environment lawsuits. By the time the graffiti shows up or the slurs are uttered, some of the damage has already been done.

However, smart employers react immediately and try to limit the damage. That’s the only shot they have at limiting liability for harassment—and staying out of court.

Take, for example, the sudden appearance of graffiti. Does your company have a quick reaction plan in place? Immediately remove or cover the graffiti. Make serious efforts to catch the culprits and punish them appropriately. And tell everyone that such actions won’t be tolerated.

Recent case: Percy Curry and other black employees sued SBC Communications, alleging race discrimination. In addition, they claimed to have worked in a hostile environment and pointed to two incidents that happened at work. First, someone placed a noose on a door. Second, someone sprayed racially offensive graffiti on a door. Using a common tactic, the employees’ attorneys tried to use the incidents to bolster their clients’ individual discrimination cases.

SBC went to great lengths to explain exactly what it did when it learned of the incidents. Almost immediately, SBC got to the bottom of the noose incident, realizing what a racially offensive and provocative symbol it was.

Apparently, someone had placed the rope across a door as a clothesline and hung play money by clothespins to mark progress in a sales competition. Someone then fashioned a noose with part of the line, telling others that it represented what would happen to him if he didn’t meet his sales goal. Other employees who didn’t know the story assumed the noose was meant to intimidate black employees. SBC had the rope removed the next morning.

The company also held sensitivity training sessions to explain to everyone why creating a noose in the workplace is wrong.

It also acted fast when graffiti showed up on a door. First, it painted over the slurs. Then, it had the door removed, stripped down completely and repainted to eliminate any possibility that the slur could still be seen.

This case is ongoing. It remains to be seen if the company’s actions were enough to stop the lawsuit. But at least SBC can argue to the jury that it did everything it could to undo the damage. It hopes the jury will focus on its argument that it didn’t operate a racially hostile work environment. (Curry, et al., v. SBC Communications, No. 06-11728, ED MI, 2008)

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