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Even ‘tolerable’ harassment will nail you

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

For months, Richard Corliss hurled racial slurs at two African-American co-workers at McDonald's. When the two women complained, their supervisor said he couldn't control Corliss' mouth, claimed he didn't know how to stop the harassment and suggested the women might have to resign. The supervisor finally disciplined Corliss after the women gave notice they were quitting.

A district court threw out the women's claim of a hostile work environment, saying the incidents weren't severe or pervasive enough to make their jobs "unendurable" or "intolerable." An appeals court, however, said the atmosphere doesn't have to be that bad for it to be considered a hostile work environment. It said the standard should really be whether the harassment simply made the working conditions worse.

Whether the employer responded reasonably to the complaints "is a close call," the court said, noting the supervisor was clueless about the company policy on workplace harassment and wasn't very sympathetic to the complaints, although he eventually gave the offending worker oral and written warnings. (Whidbee v. Garzarelli Food Specialties, Inc., No. 99-9470, 2d Cir., 2000)

Advice: This decision proves that you need to respond quickly and clearly to harassment complaints and provide sound anti-harassment training for your front-line managers. This is even more important if, as in this case, courts are setting the bar lower for what constitutes a hostile work environment.

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