Immediately get rid of offensive graffiti

Employers can’t prevent every harassment incident. But they can provide a way for employees to complain about it and commit to taking swift action when they learn harassment has occurred.

That’s typically sufficient if the harassment originates with co-workers and not supervisors.

Recent case: Melvin, who is black, worked for the New York Corrections Department. He sued, claiming he had to work in a racially hostile environment.

He pointed to three separate incidents. The first involved an alleged noose in the lunch room. It turned out someone had used twine to hang a plastic bag of cookies from a pipe near the ceiling. When it was later torn down, bits of string and plastic remained. Nine days later, Melvin complained about the “noose” and said it offended him.

Melvin also found a black plastic rat hanging from a noose on his apartment stairs. He didn’t tell the employer until he filed the lawsuit. Melvin’s co-workers would later deny they had anything to do with the rat.

Finally, Melvin complained that racist graffiti had been scrawled in the work bathroom. The Corrections Department promptly removed it. The graffiti reappeared and this time the walls were painted black, effectively putting a stop to the problem.

The court said that none of the incidents amounted to a hostile environment. The bag wasn’t a noose. The rat did not appear at work. And the employer quickly solved the graffiti problem.

It had done all it was required to do. (Davis v. Corrections, SD NY, 2017)

Final note: If graffiti reappears, it may be time to paint the surface black or otherwise make it hard to write on. Perform regular inspections to spot and remove offensive “artwork.”