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Crack down on association discrimination before it lands you in court

by on
in Discrimination and Harassment,HR Management,Human Resources

Does your organization allow or tacitly condone it (by ignoring it) when employees criticize a co-worker who associates with members of a different protected class?

If so, you should be aware that disciplining that employee can bring on a lawsuit. For example, a workplace where many employees openly disapprove of interracial relationships and harass a fellow employee who dates interracially can lead to a discrimination lawsuit based on that harassment.

Recent case:
Christina Bergerson, who is white, went to work for the Central New York Psychiatric Center. She had to serve a probationary term and was evaluated several times. Each time, her probation was extended based on the latest evaluation. Each evaluation commented on her need to get along better with her peers.

That was a problem. It seems that Bergerson had dated interracially in the past and that many of her co-workers did not approve. They made offensive comments about her dating, saying things like “once you go black, you don’t go back” and alleging that she was promiscuous and had sex with doctors at the center for money.

Someone also hung a caricature of Bergerson in the workplace depicting her in an offensive way.

Then Bergerson started dating a black supervisor. Shortly after, her probation ended and she was terminated.

She sued, alleging she had lost her job because managers and co-workers didn’t approve of her interracial relationships.

The court said there was evidence that she had to endure a hostile environment and that she may have lost her job because of her co-workers’ harassment based on her association with black people. That, according to the court, is association discrimination. Her case will go forward. (Bergerson v. Central New York Psychiatric Center, No. 6:06-CV-1476, ND NY, 2009)

Final note: Have you conducted a spotcheck of what’s going on down on the factory floor or in the hospital corridors? If not, give it a try. You may be surprised at what you find. Ignoring offensive racially based talk, graffiti or harassment reports won’t make them go away.

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