When it comes to a racially hostile environment,must stay on top of the situation. As soon as anyone in HR or upper management gets even the slightest hint that hostile bias has reared its head on the front line, jump into action.
One or two poorly chosen comments won’t necessarily mean a large jury verdict, but even infrequent little digs repeated again and again over time can add up to a hostile environment.
Before you know it, the isolated comments that started it all can combine with other comments to create what a court will see as a racially hostile environment.
And remember, courts look at the totality of the circumstances, not just isolated comments.
Recent case: Several black employees who worked at a Costco warehouse store sued, alleging they had been forced to work in a racially hostile work environment. They said their immediate supervisor was a racist who made comments about working “on a plantation,” which they took as a derogatory reference to the number of black employees working on the floor.
Over time, the black employees said they heard many such comments from the supervisor. For example, they alleged he once called an employee “so black and ugly” she couldn’t work as a cashier, but had to be relegated to the back of the warehouse.
Then a Costco vice president visiting the warehouse heard the supervisor complain about having to sell watermelons, and asking for more upscale merchandise. The VP took the comment as racist and stereotypical, but never did anything about it. Ultimately, co-workers began picking up on the supervisor’s negative attitude and started calling black employees “boy” or “houseboy.”
The case went to a jury, which concluded there had been a hostile work environment. Costco appealed, but the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to overturn the verdict. The appeals court concluded that, under the totality of the circumstances, the employees had proved that there was a hostile work environment. (Betts, et al., v. Costco, No. 07-2103, 6th Cir., 2009)
Advice: Your organization must have a reliable and easy system in place to fix discrimination and harassment problems before a state or federal lawsuit erupts. For example, all your supervisors and managers must understand that they must report any overheard comments or complaints to the HR office.
Also, employees must know where to turn if they think they are enduring a hostile environment. Don’t make them guess. Providing a toll-free hotline or e-mail reporting process in case they feel they need to bypass managers at their work locations. Then have someone ready to respond immediately to any complaints by conducting a full investigation, reaching conclusions about what happened and taking appropriate action.
You should also offer regular training on all forms of discrimination and harassment. Those sessions can serve as reminders for employees on how to voice complaints.
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