When nasty racial words are tossed around in a workplace, you may think the target of those words is the only person who can sue for racial harassment. Not true. It’s not necessary for someone to have protected status to complain about harassment or discrimination.
And protected status certainly isn’t a prerequisite for filing a retaliation lawsuit.
As the EEOC says, the “victim” in a harassment case, “does not have to be the person harassed, but can be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.”
This should give you even more incentive to crack down on any reports of harassment, and to follow up with any employee who may have been wounded by racial bigotry.
Recent case: Randy and Richard, who are white, filed an internal grievance at their company, complaining that their boss said a black worker “smelled like a n****r.” HR investigated and required the supervisor take a diversity training course.
Shortly after, both Randy and Richard lost their jobs in a reorganization. The supervisor was the one who suggested their termination.
They sued, alleging retaliation.
A jury awarded back pay plus $300,000 in punitive damages. The company appealed, arguing that white employees aren’t entitled to collect damages for reporting racial slurs directed at black workers. The court disagreed and upheld the award. (Bennett, et al., v. Riceland Foods, et al., No. 12-1748, 8th Cir., 2013)
Final note: Remember, you are responsible for rogue managers’ actions. Terminating the only two employees who happened to have complained should have been a red flag for HR.
- How to Fire an Employee the Legal Way: 6 Termination Guidelines
- California's Employee Leave Laws
- What are the basics of retaliation liability?
- Not everyone wears a halo: Courts don't expect perfect work environment
- Address harassment complaint with thorough investigation—and quick action to fix problems