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Stamp out racially offensive graffiti ASAP

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Some forms of racial intimidation are so offensive that even one incident may be enough to create liability, unless the employer acts fast. Racially hostile graffiti is one example. If you don’t take steps to cover it and prevent recurrence, even one offensive tag can mean liability.

Recent case: Warnether Muhammad works at Caterpillar on the assembly floor. Muhammad is black.

Muhammad complained several times about racially offensive comments by his co-workers. For example, he told management that a co-worker called him by the N-word. The co-worker was admonished and never repeated the comment. The same happened each time another co-worker made a comment.

Then Muhammad found graffiti on the bathroom wall. It read, “Muham­­mad is a black n….r and Muhammad should be killed.”  He reported it to his supervisor, who immediately had it painted over.

Several days later, graffiti re­­appeared. It, too, was painted over.

Then a third incident occurred. That’s when Muhammad’s boss sought help from HR, which recommended that the supervisor meet one-on-one with every employee and explain the consequence if anyone was caught tagging the bathroom with graffiti. It would mean im­­mediate termination. The graffiti stopped.

Muhammad sued anyway, alleging he worked in a racially hostile work environment. The court agreed, based on just the one incident alone, which included a death threat.

But then the court went to the next issue—whether Caterpillar was liable for co-workers’ racially hostile graffiti. It concluded that in this case the answer was “no.” Why? Because the supervisor acted promptly, sought advice when painting over graffiti didn’t eliminate the problem and then finally managed to stop it with direct action. (Muhammad v. Caterpillar, No. 09-2172, CD IL, 2012)

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