Consider this scenario:

Your workforce is predominantly Hispanic, while most of the managers — including you — are non-Hispanic. One of your Hispanic employees is working toward an MBA, taking evening classes at a local college. She’s also taking English lessons to improve her spoken fluency, accent and vocabulary.

The problem is the woman’s Hispanic colleagues frequently speak derisively about her educational efforts, calling her “guera” (a derogatory term for “white”) and suggesting she’s betraying her origins. The woman comes to you and asks for help. She wants the company to put the kibosh on her co-workers’ taunts.

If you just suggest that she shrug off their sneering remarks, does she have a legitimate complaint of racial or national origin discrimination? And if you do act, aren’t you risking legal trouble if you’re seen to be cracking down on all those Hispanic workers?

The answers are Yes and No. Yes, she may well have a legitimate complaint of hostile work environment based on race. It makes no difference that members of her own ethnic group are responsible for the taunting. It’s still discrimination under the law.

And No, you’re not risking legal trouble if you insist that the woman’s co-workers cease harassing her on the basis of her perceived desire to “act white.” You’re just making sure the law is respected in your workplace.

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