Prompt action by management is key to winning hostile-Environment lawsuits

The Ohio Fair Employment Practices Act makes it illegal to subject employees to a racially hostile work environment. But not every hostile act does a lawsuit make. Much depends on management’s response to such hostility.

Advice: Train managers and supervisors to act first, investigate second. When management acts immediately—and the sooner, the better—and no supervisor is implicated in the incident, chances are good that the Ohio courts will dismiss the case.

Recent case: Karen Brown filed a race discrimination lawsuit, and threw in that she felt she had been subjected to a racially hostile environment. The basis for her claim was years old: the sudden appearance of a noose in the workplace, plus the discovery of some racially charged drawings in the bottom of a drawer.

In each case, management acted immediately. The noose was removed as soon as managers found it, and they warned employees that anyone involved in such incidents would be fired immediately. Management also removed the drawings, followed by another stern warning.

The Court of Appeals of Ohio dismissed the case, citing the employer’s quick action. Employers cannot absolutely guarantee that an employee will never be subjected to offensive materials. But by acting right away, they can mitigate the damage. (Brown v. Dover Corporation, No. C-060123, Court of Appeals of Ohio, First Appellate District, 2007)