Act fast to remove supervisors who make racist comments

Adopt a “zero tolerance” policy for managers or supervisors who make racist comments. Those caught making derogatory or discriminatory comments (à la Don Imus) should be promptly shut down.

If you don’t fire or at least remove them immediately, their words may come back to hurt the company.

Here’s why: An employee who has been supervised by a manager with a discriminatory attitude will be able to use those comments to link otherwise-unrelated employment actions to racism. A supervisor’s derogatory comments can taint all of his or her decisions and can cost the company in court.

Recent case: Ronald Matthews, who is black, worked for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters as a union organizer and recruiter. For part of his tenure, he had a supervisor who sometimes made comments that Matthews interpreted as racist.

At least once, he heard the “n” word. Other times, he heard the supervisor comment that if Matthews kept recruiting blacks, then “black members would outnumber the white members.”

The supervisor was demoted seven months before Matthews was fired for poor performance. Matthews sued, alleging the racist comments proved race was a motivating factor in the decision to fire him.

But the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected his claim, concluding that the former supervisor wasn’t involved in the decision to terminate Matthews. The court said it would have been a different matter if the supervisor was still in a management position. (Matthews v. United Brotherhood of Carpenters, No. 06-30407, 5th Cir., 2007)