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Beware racial slurs–no matter the context

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in Human Resources

Some employees will make any argument to win a lawsuit. Fortunately, courts usually can spot a set-up when they see one.

Recent case: Dorothy Knotts, a black housekeeper for the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, got a new male supervisor. Almost immediately, Knotts began complaining about her work assignments and her supervisor’s attitude toward her. She said he favored young men on the cleaning staff and supervised her too closely.

Knotts also began having interpersonal problems with co-workers. For example, she complained when a co-worker’s coat fell on her. To which the co-worker, who also is black, said, “It should have been a brick.”

What happened next led to a lawsuit. Knotts allegedly declared, “That n____r cannot talk to me like that.”

Later, the university held a grievance hearing concerning another complaint Knotts made against a co-worker. Trying to get to the bottom of the incident, her supervisor recounted that Knotts had used the racial slur during the coat incident—in the process, repeating “n____r” himself.

That prompted Knotts to sue. She said the supervisor’s use of the word created a racially hostile work environment.

The court didn’t buy it because of the context. The fact that the supervisor repeated a slur first allegedly spoken by Knotts didn’t make the employer liable. (Knotts v. University of North Carolina at Charlotte, et al., No. 3:08-CV-478, WD NC, 2011)

Final note: Ban the use of all racial slurs. It may seem overly cautious, but the best approach in this case would have been for the supervisor to explain that he believed Knotts had called her co-worker by a racial slur without specifying the slur.

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