I was surprised and disappointed when I read about a punitive damages award against a north Carolina employer who allegedly tolerated employees referring to an African-American coworker as a “coon” and offering him a hangman’s noose. It’s 2013, not 1960.
It’s bad enough when one has to defend against fabricated allegations about nooses and calling someone a “coon,” let alone when it apparently in fact happened. Such a situation is a nightmare for an employer, and to state the obvious, should never have occurred.
Those of you who follow me can already predict my next words . . . “never say that it couldn’t happen to you.” The conduct described in this case is reprehensible. However, I cannot help but wonder, did this behavior start somewhat innocently and escalate to something this terrible? Was this a decent company asleep at the wheel and not a throwback to a place found in the recent movie, Django Unchained. I don’t know.
Here are excerpts from the EEOC’s Press Release:
According to the EEOC’s lawsuit, Gill and Floyd worked as truck drivers for the company. From as early as May 2007 through at least June 2008, Gill was repeatedly subjected to unwelcome derogatory racial comments and slurs by the facility’s general manager, who was also his supervisor; the company’s dispatcher; several mechanics; and other truck drivers, all of whom are white. The comments and slurs included “n—–r,” “monkey” and “boy.” Gill testified that on one occasion he was approached by a co-worker with a noose and was told, “This is for you. Do you want to hang from the family tree?” Gill further testified that he was asked by white employees if he wanted to be the “coon” in their “coon hunt.”
Floyd testified that he also was subjected to repeated derogatory racial comments and slurs by the company’s general manager and white employees. Floyd testified that when he was hired in 2005, he was the only African-American working at the company. Floyd said the company’s general manager told him that he was the company’s “token black.” Floyd testified that on another occasion the general manager told him, “Don’t find a noose with your name on it,” and talked about having some of his “friends” visit Floyd in the middle of the night. Gill repeatedly complained about racial harassment to the company’s dispatcher and general manager and Floyd complained to an owner of Widenhouse, but both men testified that the harassment continued.
1. Absolutely nothing will get the EEOC’s attention faster than allegations of nooses, KKK markings or use of words like “coon.”
2. The EEOC is actively looking for such cases to litigate so as to “send messages” to discourage bad behavior. They may not be too picky about their fact-checking, so if you receive an EEOC charge, even if the claim is patently frivolous, call counsel.
3. The EEOC is especially interested in cases where they believe that the complained of behavior suggests systemic discrimination, which may broaden into a class action or company wide scrutiny.
4. Stop bad behavior before it gets so bad. Everyone expresses outrage at the allegations in this type of case. However, what kind of culture allowed things to get so bad?
5. Ask yourself: “Where was HR/Upper Management?” Did the Company take seriously its Complaint, No-Discrimination and No Harassment policies? Did they regularly train employees and supervisors . . . or, just pay lip service to the idea?
6. Now, ask these same questions about each of your sites.
7. Annually train supervisors about effective discipline and discharge. Many supervisors come up through the ranks and do not know how to deal with such conduct.
8. do not solely focus on Non Discrimination and No Harassment obligations – as I discussed in my recent Same-Sex Harassment Blog, train employees and demand “professionalism.”
8. ALWAYS PROMPTLY INVESTIGATE EVEN SEEMINGLY MINOR CLAIMS AND RESPOND TO THE CLAIMANT.
9. Finally, lawsuits “walk into your workplace on two feet.” I am not focusing on legitimate claims. I am talking about fabricated or frivolous claims. There seems to be a self-selection process where the employees with the bogus discrimination claims file suits, and individuals with genuine grievances, simply get another job. Neither outcome is good. Therefore, in addition to maintaining a professional workplace where such behavior doesn’t occur, recognize the type of hire who may use such claims a means of retaliation for some grievance or who always assumes that any adverse action is due to discriminatory intent; not one’s own performance.