Take it seriously anytime you learn that employees are using bigoted language or are otherwise harassing minority co-workers. If you punish offenders but the victim files a hostile environment lawsuit anyway, you’re likely to win in court.
That’s why you should have a quick-response action plan for dealing with name-calling, graffiti and problematic behavior. Immediately investigate, punish offenders quickly and then follow up with victims.
Recent case: Lord Scott, who is black, worked for Pepsi-Cola Bottlers for more than 25 years until he was discharged following a two-year medical leave. Then he sued, alleging he had been forced to work in a racially hostile environment.
Scott testified that during his quarter century of work with the company, he had twice been subjected to racial comments from co-workers, plus had heard three co-workers direct racial epithets toward another employee. In addition, he once heard about a noose displayed at another company facility.
The company said it had always disciplined employees when it learned of racial slurs and had dealt with the noose incident. The only time it had not acted quickly was in the incident Scott cited, which apparently happened more than 20 years earlier.
The court tossed out the case. It said the company wasn’t responsible because it acted fast to end the problem, and that a handful of incidents over a quarter of a century didn’t amount to a hostile environment. (Scott v. Pepsi-Cola Bottlers, No. 09-5683, 6th Cir., 2010)