A supervisor’s unwise reference to an employee “playing the race card” led the company into a legal labyrinth.

Here’s what happened: The employee, an African-American tool operator, was given a written warning by his foreman for failing to complete a tool preparation task.

Incensed at what he considered unfair discipline, the employee complained to a supervisor. The supervisor reacted by accusing him of “playing the race card,” and suggested that he might want to find another job.

Discrimination complaints
What did the supervisor have in mind when he spoke of the “race card”? A few years earlier, and again earlier the same year, this employee had complained to management about racial discrimination.

He was particularly upset by a co-worker who said he’d rather retire than work with him. When the supervisor heard this, he laughed.

The meeting with the supervisor eventually led to the employee’s termination. He sued for retaliation, claiming he was fired for complaining about discrimination.

Teeing up his claim
Unfortunately for the company, the supervisor’s imprudent remark set the retaliation claim up on a tee so the employee could whack it a long way.

The appeals court that heard the case said the “race card” reference clearly suggested that the supervisor meant to get back at the employee for his previous complaints – by firing him.

Remember: If you must discipline an employee who has complained of discrimination in the past, refrain from any reference to the complaint. If you bring it up, it’ll look like you’re trying to get even.

Cite: Burnell v. Gates Rubber Co., No. 10-3490, 7th Cir., 7/27/11.

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