A worker reporting that a supervisor used a racially charged slur is protected from retaliation. It doesn’t matter that a single incident may not ultimately be enough to create a hostile environment. It’s still reasonable for a worker to believe using slurs in the workplace is illegal.
Recent case: Craig, who is black, was a probationary employee at a battery plant. He complained to his supervisor (who is white) that he frequently was given the heaviest batteries to work on while others got lighter ones.
One day, he was loading batteries onto a pallet; his supervisor watched the whole time. Only after Craig was finished loading the pallet did the supervisor chastise him for failing to place a board under the batteries to stabilize the load. He had to unload the pallet and then reload it again.
The next morning, Craig asked the supervisor about his performance and whether he was doing something wrong. What happened next became the basis for a lawsuit.
Craig claimed that the supervisor answered, “You need to pick up the pace, n****r.”
After hearing the slur, Craig went to his union representative and complained about what his boss said and about what he believed were unfair assignments. Then he walked off the job and went home.
Craig was fired for leaving work and he sued, alleging racial harassment and discrimination, as well as retaliation for reporting both.
The court dismissed his racial harassment and discrimination claims, concluding that one slur wasn’t enough to support a lawsuit.
However, that didn’t mean his retaliation claim was dead. The court said it could go forward. Going to the union to complain about the supervisor’s slur was protected activity; discharge within a day of complaining was suspicious. (Frazier v. Exide Technologies, No. 11-1863, ED PA 2016)