Odis Ross' boss at the county jail refused to call him Officer Ross. Instead, he addressed him as "black boy" and "nigger" and often referred to Ross' wife, who is white, as "whitey." The twist: Both Ross and his boss are African-Americans.
The harassment got worse after Ross filed a complaint with the state's equal-rights commission. Ross was permanently assigned to the most difficult job in the jail, a position so stressful that officers were typically rotated through it.
Ross got fed up and resigned, but changed his mind. Although white officers had been allowed to withdraw resignations, Ross was told he'd have to reapply.
Instead, he sued the county, alleging a hostile work environment, disparate treatment and retaliation. A jury awarded him back pay plus $100,000 for emotional distress. A federal appeals court upheld the award, rejecting the county's arguments that Ross' supervisor treated black and white officers the same. The supervisor would not have called Ross racially offensive names if Ross had been white, the court said. (Ross v. Douglas County, No. 00-2688, 8th Cir., 2000)
Advice: Don't assume that harassment is OK because the harasser and victim share the same attributes. Same-race and same-sex harassment claims are actionable under Title VII.
Also, be aware what counts as retaliation. The county believed Ross' tough job assignment wasn't an "adverse action" because it didn't affect his salary or benefits. But the legal definition of adverse action is broader than you think, including changes to a worker's schedule, assignment or working conditions.
Having well-written personnel policies is only half the battle. It's absolutely essential to teach managers about evenhanded enforcement of those policies.
- How to Fire an Employee the Legal Way: 6 Termination Guidelines
- Focus on facts when promoting; avoid subjective 'Better qualified' justification
- Prevent hostile-environment lawsuits: No teasing allowed
- When punishing employees' use of slurs, equality counts
- Make sure firing decision was independent of FMLA status