Unlike the case of an ultrasensitive employee, sometimes co-workers do create a truly hostile work environment. When you face such allegations, always investigate the claim right away. If you find a problem, fix it immediately.
A rule of thumb: If co-workers say things that most people would find inappropriate, chances are the terms really are offensive—and likely to create legal liability. Most common slang for race or ethnicity is likely to cause trouble.
When you get a complaint, ask the employee to be as specific as possible. Then interview co-workers and others who may have heard (or overheard) the comments. Get their versions of events. Ask open-ended questions about what happened. If witnesses don’t report hearing the specific slur the complaining employee reported, then ask specifically.
If you conclude that co-workers did engage in offensive conduct, follow up with punishment, up to and including discharge. Then hold a staff meeting to discuss appropriate workplace behavior.
Recent case: Steven Rasco, who is of Asian descent, and Garrick Meikle, who is black, complained to their supervisor about racist comments from co-workers. Rasco said co-workers mimicked Chinese speech patterns, mocking him by talking about “flied rice” and calling him a “slanted-eyed bastard” and “chink.” Meikle said co-workers called him various slurs, including “n****r.” didn’t fix the problem.
When the two sued, their employer said the environment wasn’t bad enough to be called hostile. Besides, the company argued, Rasco and Meikle made derogatory comments about Italian-Americans.
The court ruled Rasco and Meikle had enough evidence to move their case forward. It said a jury should decide whether there had been a hostile work environment—and whether Rasco and Meikle’s own comments were proof they didn’t subjectively believe their environment was hostile. (Rasco, Meikle v. BT Radianz, et al., No. 05-CV-7147, SD NY, 2009)
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