An effective response to racism in the workplace.
  • Blog post

An effective response to racism in the workplace.

Racial discrimination in the workplace and management prevention

“How often do I have to tell you people about the racist way Clark Barr talks to me?” Rosemary Paige asked HR director Eve Bielski. “I reported him to my supervisor. Then I went to her supervisor. No result.”

Eve scrutinized a sheet of paper. “According to your supervisor, you complained that you were getting unfair blame for Clark’s mistakes,” Eve said. “She tried to mediate with you and the co-workers you said were blaming you.

“Three weeks ago was the first time you mentioned anything about racial insults from Clark,” Eve continued.

“It’s all racist treatment,” Rosemary said. “Those people who blamed me for Clark’s errors could only see the color of my skin. They do not like black people and they let me know it.

“As for Clark, I didn’t want to lower myself by repeating his language, but finally I got fed up,” Rosemary continued.

Catalog of insults leads to racial discrimination lawsuits

“I see here that you claim Clark called you ‘porch monkey’ and ‘chimpanzee.’ Is that right?” Eve asked.

“Many times,” Rosemary said.

“And he said once he wanted to ‘eat your liver’?” Eve went on.

“Yes,” Rosemary said. “It’s a threat from that movie.”

“And now,” said Eve, scanning a printout, “he’s sent you this e-mail saying you have a ‘funny-shaped head.’ I get the picture. We’ll decide how to respond to your complaint.”

“You’ll have to do a lot to fix all I’ve been through,” Rosemary said.

Two days later, Clark was fired. But Rosemary filed a racial discrimination lawsuit, saying firing Clark wasn’t enough to right the wrongs done her.

Did she win?

The decision

No, Rosemary didn’t win her racial discrimination lawsuit.

The court said Clark’s racial barbs were severe and threatening enough to create a hostile work environment.

But the employer took proper action to end the racial harassment, the court said. The employer may have done more than it had to, because the law doesn’t require a company to fire the harasser in a hostile environment case.

Rosemary claimed the employer didn’t act fast enough. But the court said the delay of a few weeks between her first complaint about Clark and his termination wasn’t unreasonable.

As for the comments by other co-workers, the court said Rosemary couldn’t prove they were racially motivated.

Effective response

This case perfectly illustrates how an effective response to an employee’s discrimination complaint can keep an employer out of deep legal waters.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: If you investigate thoroughly and act promptly, and in accordance with policy, you’ll seldom go wrong.

Best practice: The front-line supervisor could have done more to keep the company’s skirts clean. When Rosemary mentioned that co-workers were blaming her for Clark’s failings, the supervisor could have probed a little deeper and perhaps found out about her issues with Clark himself.

Cite: Green v. Franklin National Bank of Minneapolis, No. 05-2513, 8th Cir, 8/23/06. Fictionalized for dramatic effect.

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