Racist con­duct can’t be tol­er­ated in work­place

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - LABOR LAW -

The cel­e­bra­tion of Black His­tory Month in Vir­ginia is off to a rough start.

Vir­ginia Gov. Ralph Northam and At­tor­ney Gen­eral Mark Her­ring have come un­der fire for racist pho­tos and/ or be­hav­iors oc­cur­ring more than 30 years ago when the gover­nor was in med­i­cal school and the at­tor­ney gen­eral in col­lege.

While we can rea­son­ably be­lieve that in­di­vid­u­als dress­ing up as a black pub­lic fig­ure for Hal­loween 30 years ago would not have fully un­der­stood the im­pli­ca­tions of their ac­tions, there can be no ex­cuse in to­day’s en­vi­ron­ment.

Too of­ten em­ploy­ers as­sume that racist con­duct hap­pened in the past and that it is not a cur­rent-day prob­lem.

Racist be­hav­iors un­for­tu­nately are not a 30-year-old prob­lem, but a cur­rent-day is­sue that, if oc­cur­ring in the work­place, em­ploy­ers must im­me­di­ately ad­dress.

For ex­am­ple, last fall four black men filed a dis­crim­i­na­tion law­suit in Cal­i­for­nia against their em­ployer, a con­struc­tion com­pany, claim­ing they were sub­jected to a series of com­ments and ac­tions of racial ha­rass­ment.

The con­duct by their co­work­ers in­cluded ep­i­thets in the bath­rooms and black dolls hang­ing from nooses at job sites. In one case, the vic­tim said his co-work­ers put fe­ces in the soap dis­pensers, caus­ing him to un­know­ingly wash his hands with fe­ces.

He said that when he told his su­per­vi­sor about the fe­ces in­ci­dent, his su­per­vi­sor texted him: “We are all grown men. You need to get over this.”

The in­ci­dents are not from the 1980s, but al­legedly oc­curred in 2017.

At­tor­neys for the men re­ferred to the con­duct as “ter­ror­ism” at work. The ep­i­thets in­cluded swastikas and racist mes­sages left on bath­room walls.

One vic­tim claimed he in­formed his man­ager of the im­ages, but he said noth­ing was done to erase the graf­fiti or ad­dress the con­duct.

An­other vic­tim re­called see­ing two black dolls hang­ing in a re­stroom, with notes us­ing racial slurs and threat­en­ing to kill work­ers. He said his su­per­vi­sor had to es­cort him to his car af­ter his shift each night.

Due to the ha­rass­ment, the men sought ther­apy and had night­mares.

If even a frac­tion of the al­le­ga­tions is true, this case re­minds us how far we still have to go to pro­tect work­ers and elim­i­nate ha­rass­ment and dis­crim­i­na­tion in the work­place.

This starts with set­ting ex­pec­ta­tions, train­ing man­agers and staff on ac­cept­able con­duct, train­ing man­agers on how to ad­dress vi­o­la­tions and then hold­ing ev­ery­one ac­count­able.

The man­agers’ re­sponses to the vic­tims, if true, do not com­ply with fed­eral law. Fed­eral law re­quires that or­ga­ni­za­tions stop any acts of ha­rass­ment or dis­crim­i­na­tion of which man­age­ment knew or should have known.

To avoid any con­fu­sion, or­ga­ni­za­tions need to set clear ex­pec­ta­tions for be­hav­ior and should start with zero tol­er­ance for any use of racial ep­i­thets, im­ages or in­nu­en­dos.

Even if the co-work­ers be­lieve that the con­duct is wel­come or they are just jok­ing, the set­ting of “never ever” be­hav­iors elim­i­nates any con­fu­sion.

Fur­ther, the use of the “n” word at work, even if it is be­tween peo­ple of the same race and/or ap­pears to be used in a friendly, non-threat­en­ing man­ner, can­not be tol­er­ated.

Man­agers must im­me­di­ately ad­dress any vi­o­la­tion, in­clud­ing telling hu­man re­sources so an in­ves­ti­ga­tion can occur. Man­agers should doc­u­ment any ev­i­dence of racial im­ages.

It is im­por­tant that the or­ga­ni­za­tion can prove the be­hav­iors and iden­tify any­one in­volved in the con­duct.

As an in­ves­ti­ga­tor, when I in­ter­view vic­tims like the men in­volved in this case, I see the pain that vic­tims ex­pe­ri­ence when treated in this way.

While it’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine that any hu­man could go to work and treat an­other per­son in this man­ner, em­ploy­ers can­not as­sume that such be­hav­iors will not hap­pen in their work­places.

Em­ploy­ers need to make train­ing of man­agers and em­ploy­ees a pri­or­ity, but if not ad­dressed im­me­di­ately af­ter vi­o­la­tions occur, the train­ing will be a waste of time and money.

Em­ploy­ers also need to com­mit to hold­ing em­ploy­ees ac­count­able for the be­hav­iors, and man­agers ac­count­able for fail­ing to re­spond upon be­ing on no­tice.

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