Friday, March 06, 2009

Code Word Harassment No Joke

Harassment at work comes in many forms. Even in code words. And so called "jokes."

Racially derogatory references violate federal law, even if they are not traditional explicit slurs. Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, sex, religion, national origin, disability, and/or age.

Harassment becomes unlawful where the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive, or where enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment. Offensive conduct may include offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance.

"You people"/"BP time". The EEOC obtained $562,470 in a Title VII lawsuit against the eighth largest automobile retailer in the U.S. The EEOC alleged that shortly after a new White employee was transferred to serve as the new General Manager, he engaged in disparate treatment of the Black employee and made racial remarks to him, such as using “BP time” (Black people time) and remarking that he’d fired “a bunch of you people already.” The new GM also berated the personnel coordinator for assisting the Black employee with his complaint and intensified his harassment of him until the employee resigned. The 4-year consent decree prohibits defendants from engaging in future discrimination based on race, color, or national origin. See EEOC v. Lithia Motors, Inc., d/b/a Lithia Dodge of Cherry Creek, No. 1:05-cv-01901 (D. Colo. March 8, 2006).

"Cornelius." The EEOC filed a Title VII racial harassment case against a food and beverage distributor, alleging that the company subjected a Black employee to a racially hostile work environment when a co-worker repeatedly called him “Cornelius” in reference to an ape character from the movie, “Planet of the Apes,” management officials were aware of the term’s racially derogatory reference to the employee and an ape character from the movie, but terminated his employment once he objected to the racial harassment. See EEOC v. Dairy Fresh Foods, Inc., No. 2:07CV14085 (E.D. Mich. Sept. 27, 2007).

"Bruce Lee." A San Jose body shop agreed to pay $45,000 to settle a sexual and racial harassment lawsuit filed by the EEOC, in which a male auto body technician of Chinese and Italian ancestry was taunted daily by his foreman with sexual comments, racial stereotypes and code words, including calling him “Bruce Lee.” The company also agreed to establish an internal complaint procedure, disseminate an anti-harassment policy, and train its workforce to prevent future harassment. See EEOC v. Monterey Collision Frame and Auto Body, Inc., No. 5:06-cv-06032-JF (N.D. Cal. consent decree filed August 30, 2007).

"Reggin." The EEOC settled for $44,000 a lawsuit against a California medical clinic, alleging that a White supervisor used racial code words, such as “reggin” (“nigger” spelled backwards), to debase and intimidate an African American file clerk and then fired her after she complained. The clinic also agreed to incorporate a zero-tolerance policy concerning discriminatory harassment and retaliation into its internal EEO and anti-harassment policies. See EEOC v. Robert G. Aptekar, M.D., d/b/a Arthritis & Orthopedic Medical Clinic, Civ. No. C06-4808 MHP (N.D. Cal. consent decree filed Aug. 20, 2007).

"Crack Money." An elevator manufacturing company agreed to pay $75,000 to an 18-year-old African American welder and $100,000 to 12 other Black employees in an EEOC suit alleging racial harassment of the teen and a pattern of discrimination against African American employees at the Middleton, Tennessee facility. Harassment of the teen included calling him a “Black [S.O.B.],” telling racially offensive jokes, hiding his safety gloves, placing stink bombs under his workstation, and telling him that the vending machines do not take “crack money.” See EEOC v. Thyssenkrupp Elevator Manufacturing, Inc., Civil Action No. 03-1160-T (W.D. Tenn. Oct. 2005).

"Crack Baby." Denver attorneys Kimberlie Ryan and Whitney Traylor won a $300,000 race harassment jury verdict against Sara Lee after it failed to take adequate action in response to an anonymous posting of graffiti using the words "Crack Baby" on a cartoon purporting to depict their client.

Code word harassment should not be tolerated, and any employer becoming aware of such harassment should take immediate action to investigate, adequately discipline the harasser, and take steps to prevent further harassment.

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