When employees claim they were forced to work in a racially hostile environment, the law says they can go back far into the past to show a pattern of harassment. Taken together, isolated acts that wouldn’t be severe enough to create a hostile environment may create liability.
But an employer doesn’t have to be a hostage to its past. You can lessen your legal liability by taking proactive measures to stop racial slurs and other offensive conduct. The key is to show that you are making good progress toward tackling the problem.
Recent case: Several black firefighters sued the city of Pensacola, alleging various forms of race discrimination in promotions and work assignments. While they were at it, they added a claim for working in a racially hostile environment—and went back 15 years to cite examples. They told the court white firefighters called them “black beetles” and the like. They also said co-workers had displayed a noose once and one had once worn a white sheet.
The city argued that none of the incidents was recent. The court concluded that the claimed hostility, which had clearly been greatly reduced over the years, wasn’t enough to warrant a racially hostile work environment case. The court dismissed that claim. (Streeter, et al., v. City of Pensacola, et al., No. 3:05-CV-286, ND FL, 2009)
Final note: Conducting spot workplace inspections will help root out such nonsense as nooses and graffiti. Respond immediately with scissors or a can of graffiti remover.