No matter how hard you work to make sure your workplace is a model of fairness and civility, you can’t rule out the possibility that an employee will come to HR with a claim that she’s being forced to work in a racially or sexually hostile environment.
How you handle that complaint may make the difference between nipping an ugly problem in the bud and paying a huge jury award.
Take every complaint seriously and at face value. Even if the employee is calm and her work performance hasn’t suffered, she may be experiencing harm enough to win a lawsuit.
Recognize that courts don’t necessarily decide harassment cases on the basis of how the situation affects the particular employee who files the complaint. The test is how a “reasonable” employee would view the conditions—if a hypothetical reasonable employee would view the environment as hostile, it probably is.
Recent case: Tomeka Shockley complained to HR that her supervisor at the health care facility where she worked was creating a hostile environment with racist comments and innuendoes.
For example, Shockley said that the supervisor used racial epithets when he spoke to her and also referred to her as one of “you people” on a regular basis.
Shockley said she took “you people” to mean other blacks and that the term was demeaning and racist.
After the company fired her, Shockley sued for a hostile environment. The trial court dismissed the case, reasoning that Shockley hadn’t shown her work performance had been impacted by the allegedly hostile environment.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision and ordered a trial.
It said just because Shockley still could do her job didn’t mean she wasn’t working in a hostile environment.
According to the court, as long as the conduct was frequent, severe and humiliating, it didn’t matter whether it actually affected her job performance. (Shockley v. Healthsouth Central Georgia Rehabilitation Hospital, No. 08-11010, 11th Cir., 2008)
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