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Crack down on association discrimination—especially if there are threats of violence

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,HR Management,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training

Employers, beware: More employees are suing over so-called association discrimination, claiming their friendships or other relationships with black employees have resulted in discrimination against them, in addition to their acquaintances.

Recently, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Michigan employers, considered such alleged discrimination at one large employer and came up with guidelines for when employees can sue based on their relationships with black employees.

Be sure to explain this case to managers and supervisors. Make it part of your standard harassment, discrimination and retaliation training.

Recent case: Lynette Barrett, who is white, was a friend to black employees where she worked at Whirlpool. Other employees treated her black co-workers poorly, and the environment was most certainly hostile. For example, black employees often heard racial epithets and sometimes were threatened with violence. Plus, racist jokes were commonplace and offensive graffiti appeared around the plant.

While management appears to have responded promptly when it heard about some of the incidents, Barrett’s racist co-workers didn’t stop. When Barrett spoke out against the harassment, she claimed other white employees began shunning her.

She sued Whirlpool for harassment.

Barrett lost her case because the court concluded that none of the underlying racial harassment was directed at her. Merely being shunned by co-workers wasn’t enough to warrant a lawsuit.

The same was not true for another white Whirlpool employee. Treva Nickens, who had jointed the suit, was also friendly with black employees and also witnessed the offensive racial conduct at work. When Nickens complained to her supervisor, she claimed she was then threatened with violence. Other employees suggested that she “stay with her own kind” and that she was a “n****r lover.”

The court said Nickens, unlike Barrett, had a legal case, since she was the victim of direct harassment resulting from her associations with black employees. That, according to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, was the sort of association discrimination that is covered by Title VII. (Barrett, et al., v. Whirlpool, No. 08-5307, 6th Cir., 2009)

Final notes: The best way to protect your organization against association discrimination lawsuits is to be as proactive as possible in stopping discrimination and harassment of any kind. But often, upper-level management and HR don’t know what’s happening on the shop floor until someone complains.

That’s why it’s crucial to take all complaints seriously and launch an immediate investigation. It goes without saying that any egregious incidents like the sudden appearance of nooses or racist graffiti must be dealt with immediately. Remove the offending materials and words.

Then hold a training meeting explaining that the company will not tolerate such behavior and will terminate anyone involved who is caught. Tell employees that you will hold unannounced spot inspections.

Make keeping the environment harassment-free a goal for your supervisors and managers, too. You can also consider installing surveillance equipment in all but the most private areas, such as restroom stalls and showers.

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