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Employee does not have to specify race to invoke protection

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers

Bernard Pettis, who is black, worked for R.R. Donnelley as a materials handler, loading skids for press operator Tim Cain. Whenever Cain, who is white, helped Pettis seal the skids, he would smash Pettis’ hands under the top board, then laugh and tell co-workers, “I got his hands,” or “Ooh, look at him.”

One co-worker later testified it was “common knowledge in the press room that Cain does not like minorities, specifically blacks and Mexicans.” Cain would allegedly speed up the press when Pettis was working, then yell at Pettis when it jammed, telling co-workers he would “work him into the ground” and “make him quit.”

When Pettis complained to his supervisor, he was assigned to a floater position. But Cain frequently served as acting supervisor and, along with several co-workers, continued to ridicule and harass Pettis.

One night, two of the co-workers grabbed Pettis in the parking lot, put him in a headlock and mocked him. When Pettis asked for a transfer, the company encouraged him to work it out with his co-workers.

Pettis sued for racial discrimination and harassment. Donnelley requested summary judgment, arguing that the company has a racial harassment policy and that Pettis understood it. Further, it said Pettis failed to specify that the harassment was race-based when he complained.

That argument didn’t fly with the court.

“Just having the policy in place is insufficient,” the court noted. “Cain was never reprimanded; other employees involved in the alleged harassing behavior were not addressed at all; Cain remained in leadership and even supervisory positions.”

Pettis will have a chance to make his case before a jury.

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