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Confront bigotry—it won’t go away by itself

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in Human Resources

It may be tempting to ignore rumors about racial or other hostility in the workplace. But you do so at the company’s peril—especially if some of that hostility is coming from a supervisor who has the power to hire and fire.

If rumors of bigotry are true, they may represent just the tip of the iceberg, and ignoring the problem won’t make it go away.

Recent case: Herman Perez, who is Hispanic, worked as a police officer and was serving a one-year probationary period. The police chief, who is white, allegedly had a history of racism—at least that’s what some witnesses said later.

Perez was fired after he helped organize a Hispanic officer’s association. He overheard the police chief use racial slurs when saying he was going to weed out blacks and Hispanics. The chief allegedly repeated the slurs within Perez’s earshot and proclaimed that he would not let “them” run his department.

Perez sued, alleging discrimination based on his national origin.

The lower court dismissed his case, concluding that the chief’s comments weren’t enough to show prejudice. But the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision and reinstated the lawsuit. It concluded that when a decision-maker makes comments like those the chief allegedly made, a jury should hear the case. (Perez v. New Jersey Transit Corporation, et al., No. 07-3839, 3rd Cir., 2009)

Final note: If you learn that a supervisor has made questionable statements, remove him from the decision-making process—and consider whether it’s time to fire him, too. If you do nothing, the comments may end up tainting any later decisions the supervisor participates in. At the very least, make sure the behavior stops—immediately. Then follow up to make sure it has.

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