Two nooses hanging near a loading dock and racist graffiti on a company truck designed to be seen by the company’s African-American employees will almost certainly lead to an expensive racial harassment lawsuit against a business, but the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently sided with an employer who promptly took five comprehensive steps in response to this reprehensible conduct.
In its June 2018 opinion, the Court held that YRC, the employer, responded appropriately to these incidents at its Irving, Texas facility. The opinion gives all employers helpful guidance on how to combat harassment in the workplace. Tolliver v. YRC, Inc. (5th Cir. 2018).
It is important to note that the Court acknowledged that the racist actions were “morally unacceptable” and “reprehensible. But the plaintiffs didn’t allege that the acts were directed specifically toward them and “for the most part, learned about the acts secondhand”. So, the Fifth Circuit did not find that this conduct was sufficiently severe or pervasive enough to change the terms or conditions of employment as to these particular employees, meaning that their personal racial harassment claims weren’t strong to begin with.
But what really mattered to the Court is that the employer took prompt remedial action to protect all employees after these horrifying incidents occurred. The steps YRC followed offer guidance for all employers facing any kind of harassment situation, whether involving racial harassment, sexual harassment, ethnic harassment, etc.
Let’s call these the Five Steps to Responding Well to a Harassment Claim: Continue reading Five Steps for Responding Well to Harassment Claims
It is easy for employers to lose sight of the obligation to protect all employees regardless of national origin or religion with all the heated political rhetoric we hear right now. But it is still against every federal and state civil rights law for an employer with 15 or more names on the payroll to allow any workplace harassment or discrimination on the basis of where someone is from, what language they speak or what religion they practice.
Since 2001, religious and national origin discrimination cases filed by Muslims and others of Middle Eastern ancestry have increased. Similarly, when illegal immigration is a hot topic, employees of Mexican heritage are often targeted for discrimination.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission now receives approximately 3000 charges each year about religious discrimination and 9000-10000 charges of national origin discrimination in the workplace.
In some circumstances, the discrimination is quite blatant. In Huri v. Office of the Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois (7th Cir. 2015), the Muslim plaintiff of Saudi Arabian origin alleged that her supervisor was a devout, vocal Christian who was unfriendly to her from the beginning. The supervisor allegedly referred to one of Huri’s colleagues as a “good churchgoing Christian” while calling Huri “evil”. The supervisor reportedly also made a show of saying Christian prayers in the workplace while holding hands with employees other than Huri.
Any employer should be able to quickly recognize the legal and morale implications of such behavior and correct it. But other questions arise when well-meaning employers are confronted with an employee who may be from a culture or religion that the employer is unfamiliar with. That’s why in 2016 the EEOC released guidelines specifically about preventing discrimination against employees on the basis of national origin. These guidelines join the EEOC’s specific guidance on the workplace rights of employees who are perceived to be Muslim or Middle Eastern and the EEOC’s guidance on best practices to prevent religious discrimination in business settings.
What does an employer need to do to prevent or address any hostility in the company towards an employee on the basis of that employee’s national origin or religion? Continue reading Religious and National Origin Discrimination in Heated Political Times
Since it is Valentine’s Week and I am an employment lawyer, my thoughts naturally turn to all of the ways that workplace romances can disrupt your business.
Don’t think it isn’t happening at your company. Of the almost 1,900 employees who responded to a 2014 office romance survey by Match.com, 56% of workers said they have been in a workplace relationship. Can you say “hostile environment”? It gets worse: of those who dated a co-worker last year, 20% of women and 9% of men said it involved dating a supervisor. Can you say “quid pro quo sexual harassment”?
Workplace romances are fraught with sexual harassment and retaliation risks. Many times the relationship creates opportunities for gossip, name-calling, sexual jokes and scorn. If the couple breaks up, the cold shoulder, the back-biting and the anger can easily be twisted into a claim that the workplace has become a hostile environment based on gender.
If a boss dates a subordinate and then the relationship ends, it gets even messier. The claim can become quid pro quo (loosely translated “this for that”), meaning that the subordinate may say that he or she was passed over for a raise or promotion or even fired because the boss isn’t getting what the boss wants. Quid pro quo cases involving a tangible job detriment, such as a demotion, are the worst kinds of sexual harassment cases for an employer to try to defend.
Many employers are hesitant to get involved in their workers’ “private” lives. If it is developing in your workplace, it is hardly private. If you have at least 15 employees (and are therefore subject to sexual harassment laws), you may need a written policy to establish clear boundaries regarding workplace romances. The policy can include: Continue reading Workplace Romance
As an employer with at least 15 names on your payroll, you should take any claim of sexual, racial or other illegal harassment seriously and work quickly to determine the validity of the claim, to put a stop to the offending behavior, and to deal with the offender.
The necessity of quick action was confirmed in Williams-Boldware v. Denton County. In that case, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decided that an employer’s “prompt remedial action” stopped the offending behavior, so that the claims of racial harassment and hostile work environment were defeated.
The key word here is “prompt”. In this case, within 24 hours of a racial harassment complaint being made, the supervisor had reported the claim to Human Resources, which began investigating. The co-worker who had made racially inappropriate comments immediately issued a written apology and the employer met with the complainant to discuss the claim, letting her know they took the matter very seriously, and they even asked for her input in deciding the best course of action to take. This included reprimanding the co-worker, requiring him to attend diversity training, and transferring the complainant to another department so there would be no more contact between them.
The best way to prevent racial, sexual, or other illegal harassment from ever becoming an issue is to make sure that your employees are aware of company policies regarding harassment in the workplace. You should have a written policy in place that clearly states what behavior is expected of your employees, what is not tolerated, and what the consequences will be for violating company policy. In addition, you should take serious and immediate steps to investigate and stop the harassment when a complaint is made.