Q&A: Discrimination – yes, it’s still happening, and employers must take it seriously
Q&AHarassment & Discrimination
The Question: One of our employees is saying his coworkers are using very obscene racial slurs in casual conversation. We trust our supervisors and they’ve said they can’t imagine this is actually happening. What should we do?
The Answer: The key in these situations is to fight the temptation to minimize or disbelieve the complaint, and instead to address the issue head on with a reasonable investigation. Depending on the outcome of the investigation, take steps to ensure the behavior stops. It’s not unusual for employers to have a hard time believing the complaints they receive from employees, especially if there’s a small workforce the employer feels it knows well. However, it’s important to remember that you have a legal obligation to address complaints like this and stop the behavior if it’s substantiated. A recent case in western Washington is a great reminder that discrimination and harassment still happens, and it can have significant consequences when not taken seriously. The largest producer of farmed shellfish in the United States had a black maintenance mechanic who reported demeaning comments about his race, including the use of the “N-word,” “spook,” and “boy,” according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). After making this report to management, his supervisor allegedly retaliated against him, and the company allegedly advised him to “put his head down and do what he was told.” The company ultimately agreed to pay $160,000 and implement changes within the company to settle the allegations of racial harassment and retaliation leveled in an EEOC lawsuit (EEOC press release, July, 2017).
As always, if you receive a complaint of discrimination or harassment, be sure to discuss what steps you should take with your Vigilant employment attorney. We also offer legal training for supervisors and employees on preventing harassment and discrimination.
For help with discrimination, harassment and other employment law issues look into our flat fee employment law advice.