There’s no excuse for ignorance when it comes to racially hostile symbols and speech in the workplace. Employers that ignore harassing co-workers—hiding their heads in the sand or relying solely on handbooks that tell employees how to complain—may be setting themselves up for a losing lawsuit.
Managers can’t tell employees who are being hazed by co-workers to just ignore the harassment. Simply put, it’s ’s responsibility to stop racially hostile speech, displays and other efforts to intimidate others.
Recent case: Tyrone Burns and Marvin Dortch, who are black, worked as drivers for a construction and building supply distribution center. Burns said his supervisor warned him early on that a co-worker might offend him with racist jokes. He told Burns to “brush it off, don’t pay him no attention.”
Burns did indeed have to listen to jokes about blacks that frequently featured the “n word.” He also heard from other co-workers that blacks are lazy, are criminals and conform to various bigoted stereotypes. Plus, Burns heard that some co-workers believed he sold drugs because he bought a $300,000 house.
Burns and Dortch (who also had to endure jokes and slurs) complained to managers for months, only to be told to ignore the harassment. Then they returned to work following the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday to find a noose hanging from a door. They pushed back even harder. But their supervisor insisted that the noose had been there for over a year, and that it meant nothing.
That’s when they went higher in the chain of command, demanding that the noose be removed. It was, but they sued anyway.
The company tried to argue that the two hadn’t followed the company handbook, which instructed employees to report alleged racist incidents to HR or call a hotline.
But the court said Burns and Dortch didn’t have to in this case, since they had complained to their managers. The court said that anyone should understand the noose is a cultural symbol of harassment, intimidation and fear. (Burns & Dortch v. The Winroc Corporation, No. 06-4373, DC MN, 2008)
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