For years, employers have grappled with what constitutes a hostile work environment and what does not. Lost in the debate is the fact that a workplace is just that: a place where work is supposed to be done.
There’s a way to end pointless arguments about whether speech or conduct is racially offensive—and prevent potential problems down the line.
Implement a policy that clearly bans race banter. Then punish those who violate it.
Note: While you are at it, use the rule to stamp out other offensive talk and action by banning sex talk of any kind. Once you have the rule in place, regularly remind all employees that you expect them to stay focused on the job and to avoid commenting on race, ethnicity, sexual behavior and the like.
Recent case: Carrie Redmond, who is black, worked for Cemex. After someone complained to HR that Redmond was allegedly getting preferential treatment because of her race, Redmond filed her own anonymous complaint, using the company’s discrimination hot line.
She alleged that a co-worker was a racist.
An investigation ensued, and HR interviewed several dozen employees, including Redmond. That’s when she told the company that her co-worker had refused to attend her baby shower to avoid going to the “ghetto.” Redmond also claimed the co-worker had told another black employee that she didn’t “put grease in her hair like you people.”
The company concluded Redmond had filed a false complaint and fired her. She sued, alleging retaliation for complaining about working in a hostile work environment.
A court let her case go forward, noting that the case would turn on whether the use of the word “ghetto” and references to grease as a hair care product were racially offensive.
If Redmond can prove that they are (presumably by calling witnesses who can testify about racially offensive words), then her hot-line complaint would be protected activity. (Redmond v. Cemex, No. 8:08-CV-884, MD FL, 2009)
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