Did an apology make up for racial discrimination in the workplace?

by on January 7, 2009 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Info Center

Heading off complaints of racial discrimination in the workplace

“Come again?” HR director Bob Bresson said incredulously. “Jason said what?”

“He said ‘what’s up, my n—–,’ ” Hilton Maxwell repeated. “I think he considered it a joke. It’s from a Jackie Chan/Chris Tucker movie. But I didn’t think it was so funny.”

“No, I’m not surprised,” Bob said. He turned away from Hilton, one of the few African-American employees at the high-tech company, to Jason, seated at the other corner of Bob’s desk.

“What made you think it was all right to use that word, especially to somebody you supervise?” Bob asked.

“Look, I made a mistake,” Jason said. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“OK, then,” Bob said. “I think it would be appropriate that you apologize to Hilton, since you understand that you made a mistake.”

Under duress
Jason looked unhappy. And angry.

“I apologize for saying that to you,” he finally blurted out without looking at Hilton.

Hilton didn’t appear appeased. “I accept your apology,” he said. “And I assume it covers the time you called me a ‘lawn jockey,’ and the time you said my skin color came off on towels.”

Bob stared at both of them in turn. “I expect professional behavior out of both of you,” he said. “You’re not here to take out personal grudges. I trust we won’t need to talk about this subject again. If we do, the meeting may be unpleasant.”

Two months later, Hilton was fired for eating in a “clean zone” and arguing with a manager who told him to stop.

Hilton filed a racial discrimination lawsuit. Did he win?


No, Hilton didn’t win. The court threw his case out.

Jason’s apology, plus the fact that the clean room policy was rigorously enforced for all employees, let the company off the hook.

But the decision was close. One of the three judges who heard the case said he didn’t think the apology dulled the edge of Jason’s repeated racial epithets. It probably didn’t help that the apology was – and sounded – forced. This judge thought the case should have gone to trial.

Heading off complaints of racial discrimination in the workplace
An apology can sometimes stop a problem between employees cold before it leads to a racial discrimination lawsuit or EEOC complaint.

An apology should be unconditional – not “I’m sorry if you were offended,” but “I’m sorry I offended you” – and above all should not be followed by further misconduct.

But there may be times when the misconduct is severe or repetitive enough that an apology won’t cut it. It’s your responsibility to decide whether an apology is enough, or whether discipline is necessary.

Cite: Canady v. Wal-Mart Stores, No. 05-1137, 8th Cir., 3/17/06. Fictionalized for dramatic effect.

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