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Have policy, act fast to cut racism liability

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in Human Resources

When racism raises its ugly head at work, employers must do two things. First, make sure everyone understands your company policy prohibits any form of harassment, including that of a racial nature. Then punish anyone caught violating that policy.

That’s easy enough to do when name-calling is involved: Suspend—and perhaps terminate—those who use offensive slurs.

The principle is the same when the problem is racist graffiti, but there’s an additional intermediate step. Remove the graffiti as soon as possible. Paint over the offensive words immediately and then try to find the culprit. If the graffiti appears in a hallway, check surveillance cameras.

Prompt and reasonable action will help in any later lawsuit.

Recent case:
Michael Joseph, who is black, worked as a die cast operator and sometimes got into arguments with fellow employees, some of them white. The first time, he was not fired. But the second time, Joseph and a white employee got into a shoving match, and the white employee called Joseph by a racist epithet. Both were fired.

Joseph sued, alleging he had been forced to work in a racially hostile environment. He said that on several occasions, graffiti appeared on bathroom stalls. However, it was always painted over shortly after he reported it to a supervisor.

The court dismissed the lawsuit and said the company had done all it reasonably could to correct a potentially hostile environment. It had a policy, enforced it when it found out about the name-calling, and it promptly removed graffiti. The court said it would have been unreasonable to expect the employer to figure out who was putting the graffiti in the stalls, given the location. (Joseph v. ICG Castings, No. 1:07-CV-541, WD MI, 2008)

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