When it comes to hateful and discriminatory speech and behavior, it makes no difference whether the conduct happens in the boardroom or on the factory floor. The fact is, employees are entitled to work in a harassment-free workplace, and comments that diminish or demean anyone’s race, sex, national origin or other protected characteristic have no place anywhere in the organization.
That’s why you should train everyone—from those in the executive suite to those working in the field—on your harassment policy.
But training isn’t enough. You must also let all employees know where to take their complaints. And you must address right away any harassment that comes to your attention.
Recent case: Christina Ladd was the only black woman working in the rail track department at Grand Trunk Western Railroad. Other than a white female co-worker, all her co-workers were white men.
Ladd was fired for allegedly lying about a back injury. She sued, alleging she had been forced to work in an environment that was hostile to females and blacks.
In court, however, she could recount hearing just one hostile comment—when a co-worker shouted over a radio that Ladd should get back to her truck. He used the term “black bitch.”
But Grand Trunk had taken her complaint at the time and warned everyone that it would not tolerate such name-calling. It apparently stopped because Ladd couldn’t point to any other incidents.
The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed Ladd’s case, concluding that the conduct wasn’t severe enough to warrant a lawsuit and that the company had an effective complaint process. (Ladd v. Grand Trunk Western Railroad, No. 07-2512, 6th Cir., 2009)
Final note: The court, however, did caution: “Blue-collar environments do not have more leeway when it comes to offensive conduct.”
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- Carefully document every rule violation to defend against surprise claims
- Act fast, train when sexual harassment complaints arise
- Piling on disciplinary charges can look like retaliation
- Good evaluation, raise don't invalidate retaliation claim