Did supervisor’s comment create a hostile racial environment?
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Did supervisor’s comment create a hostile racial environment?

“This is the last straw!” employee Ramona Gordon said heatedly to supervisor Betty Alsop. “It is none of your business whether my husband ever hit me or not!”

“Don’t be so sensitive,” Betty replied. “I was concerned, that’s all.”

“Oh, yeah, you’re so concerned,” Ramona shot back. “Is that why you let other people in this department talk trash about African-Americans – like saying we get into lots of domestic violence? Audrey Jones was talking about that just last week.”

“I can’t put a hand over people’s mouths,” Betty said. “But I can do something if somebody gets out of line, and I have. I told Audrey I didn’t want to hear any more talk like that.”

Setting the example
“Well, I just wonder whether Audrey will pay any attention,” Ramona said. “It’s not like you set a good example.”

“What does that mean?” Betty asked.

“It means that you have your own prejudices about African-Americans, and you don’t hide them,” Ramona said.

“Now you’re just plain raving,” Betty said. “What on earth are you talking about?”

Three black women
“I’m talking about the time when you were heard to say you didn’t like the three black women working for you,” Ramona said.

“You said, and I quote, ‘One of them whines all the time, the second is late all the time, and the third wants to leave all the time.’ ”

Betty reddened. “Who told you I said that?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Ramona said. “It’s true, isn’t it? And isn’t it true that I’m the one who supposedly ‘wants to leave all the time’?”

Performance or race?
“I may have said something like that, but you’re going back at least two years,” Betty said. “Anyway, whatever I said wasn’t based on race. It was all about performance, and you can’t deny you’ve been written up more than once for leaving before the end of your shift.”

“I know what I know,” Ramona said, and walked out of Betty’s office.

Later, Ramona sued the employer, claiming she’d been subjected to a racially hostile environment.

Did she win?

The Decision
No, Ramona didn’t win her hostile environment lawsuit. The courts threw it out.

Although a federal appeals court agreed that the racially tinged comments by supervisor Betty and co-worker Audrey were offensive, they didn’t add up to the kind of “severe or pervasive” abuse necessary to prove a case of hostile environment.

But does the fact that the employee’s case eventually failed in the courts mean that the supervisor was right to act as she did? Not by a long shot. Betty’s critical comments about her black female employees practically waved a flag reading, “Please sue us.”

Supervisors have a duty to guard their tongues and not gripe about employee misconduct in front of other employees. And especially not in terms that could be taken as discriminatory.

Cite: Jackman v. IA Dept. of Corrections, No. 12-3250, 8th Cir., 8/28/13. Fictionalized for dramatic effect.

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