Just one incident of name-calling or behavior that could be interpreted as racist—if sufficiently severe—might be enough to color other incidents in a racist light.
And if a complaint leads to court, that may mean the harassed employee could get a chance to show a jury just how unpleasant co-workers made his life.
Recent case: Dr. Christopher Johnson performed plastic surgery and provided trauma assistance in the emergency room at Riverside Community Hospital. Johnson, who is black, claimed a colleague used a racial slur.
The incident allegedly happened like this: The colleague didn't read a patient's CT scan correctly, missing a brain contusion. Johnson caught the mistake and immediately admitted the patient for surgery. Johnson said when the colleague found out what he had done, he “charged” into the room and screamed, “You f______ n_____, why did you do that to me?”
Johnson also claimed nurses used code phrases to harass him because he was black. They constantly asked him to take out the garbage and perform other mundane tasks—something Johnson thought reflected the nurses' beliefs that black men were only good for menial tasks.
Johnson sued, alleging a racially hostile environment. The court ordered a trial, reasoning that if the allegations were true, they could amount to a racially hostile environment. The court emphasized that using a “code word or phrase” to cover the fact that race is the underlying reason for the harassment doesn't insulate the code speaker's employer from liability if it knew about the problem. (Johnson v. Riverside Healthcare, No. 06-55280, 9th Cir., 2008)
Advice: Revamp your harassment training to emphasize that you have zero tolerance—none at all—for any kind of racist comments or slurs.