Popular Culture in the Workplace May Be Inappropriate

Michael’s co-worker liked rap music. He liked it so much that he constantly played it and rapped along. Even though the songs contained the “N-word”. Even though Michael is African American. Even though Michael complained several times over a year’s time to his supervisors that the lyrics he was forced to listen to were offensive.

Because his supervisors didn’t correct the problem, Michael contacted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). The EEOC sued on Michael’s behalf for racial harassment and settled the suit against Michael’s employer last year for $168,000.

In announcing the settlement, the EEOC claimed that it is not in the business of judging anyone’s musical taste, but then made it clear that racially offensive language does not belong in the workplace even when disguised as popular culture. The employer had numerous chances to stop the wanna be rapper from offending his co-worker, but never effectively did so.

This kind of culture clash creates difficulties for employers. While television, movies and music have adopted an “anything goes” attitude, the harassment laws require that almost nothing offensive is ever said in the workplace. Every movie that Judd Apatow (“Knocked Up”, “40-Year-Old Virgin”, etc.) releases lowers the bar a little more on what passes for polite discourse in our society, yet every sexual harassment decision raises the standard for what is acceptable conversation on the job. In the middle of this struggle is the employer, trying to build widgets and make a profit, all while having to monitor every employee’s words and conduct.

Miller Brewing Company tried in 1993 to enforce professionalism by firing a manager named Jerold who repeated the punchline of a “Seinfeld” episode to a female coworker. In the episode, Jerry Seinfeld forgot the name of a girl, but remembered that her name rhymed with a female body part. The joke was that her name was “Dolores”. Jerold’s female co-worker didn’t get the joke, so Jerold found a dictionary and pointed out the definition of the rhyming body part. She complained and Jerold was fired a week later. Even though the company overreacted slightly to this one incident, Miller Brewing probably thought that its professionalism policy had done its job and that was the end of it.

The twist in this story is that Jerold sued Miller Brewing Company and the female coworker saying he was wrongfully terminated. The jury found that the woman was not really offended by the Seinfeld joke because she was known to participate in some graphic references herself. The jurors also found that Miller lied about the reasons it really fired Jerold. Jerold was awarded more than $20 million, although he never saw a dime of that money since an appeals court overturned the damages award.

In another music case, the Vail Corporation did not restrict employees listening to music with profanity or lyrics promoting violence against women, which Lisa said offended her. Stupidly, the company did tell Lisa, a Christian employee, that she could not listen to Christian music while on duty because it might offend other employees. The EEOC claimed that the employer also failed to accommodate Lisa’s religious beliefs in some scheduling requests and sexually harassed her by letting managers tell sexual jokes and make graphic comments in the workplace. The Vail Corporation paid $80,000 to settle that religious and sexual discrimination suit.

So do you as an employer have to police your workplace to rid it of all references to popular culture? Good luck with that. Realistically, there are some steps you can take to assure that professionalism reigns in your company:

  • Have clear, written policies expressing the company’s prohibition of racial, sexual, religious and other slurs and harassment, as well as a detailed procedure that your employees can employ to complain if they are offended. Enforce the policy with progressive discipline before any situation gets out of control.
  • Train your employees. So many young people (and some older ones) entering the job market are completely clueless about what “appropriate” or “professional” behavior and conversation actually look like. Yes, their parents and their schools failed them. But now they are your problem and you are going to have to be the one to educate them.
  • Take complaints seriously. Michael’s concern about hearing the “N-word” frequently in his co-worker’s musical selections should not have taken a year to be resolved. Even if you think your employee is being overly sensitive, investigate the complaints objectively and promptly.
  • Set a good example yourself. If dirty jokes, racial epithets or religious slurs ever sneak into your conversations, you can be sure that your employees are watching and taking note. Why should they strive to be professional and appropriate if you don’t bother to do so yourself?

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