You probably think you have a pretty good handle on what racial discrimination looks like in the workplace.

You’re well aware that if a white employee uses a racial epithet toward a black or Hispanic co-worker – or a Samoan or Uzbek, for that matter – you need to crack down. And you know that if somebody scribbles graffiti in the rest room abusing some racial or national group, you’d better clean it up and find out who did it.

But just knowing how to handle such clear-cut cases doesn’t cover the waterfront. There are a number of less-obvious situations that could amount to racial or national origin discrimination if somebody took them to court.

Take this example: Employee Rashad frequently calls co-worker Clarence a “house negro” because Rashad thinks Clarence is too chummy with a couple of white colleagues. Clarence complains to their supervisor, who brushes him off. “I’m not getting involved in this black-on-black stuff,” the supervisor thinks. “It’s just a big can of worms.”

Well, yes, there is a can of worms here, but it’s not what the supervisor thinks. He has in fact opened the can by refusing to take Clarence’s complaint seriously.

If Clarence can prove that Rashad’s name-calling has affected the terms and conditions of his employement, he may have a solid legal case of racial discrimination. And the employer who was supposed to protect him from workplace discrimination, didn’t.

Other non-obvious situations can add up to racial or national origin bias. Among them:

  • Racial or nationality-based abuse of an employee by outside parties, like customers or vendors
  • Bias against an employee because of the race or national origin of a spouse or other family member.

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