Fix Racial Harassment Before Hostile Environment Starts Affecting Employee Performance

Fix Racial Harassment Before Hostile Environment Starts Affecting Employee Performance

 by The HR Specialist: North Carolina Employment Law

Employees who have to work in a hostile work environment may have a hard time doing their jobs well. When resulting poor performance leads management to fire someone, expect trouble. Usually, poor performance is a rock solid discharge reason. But a court may ignore that principle and conclude that the real reason for discharge was illegal discrimination.

Your best bet is to address any hint at a hostile work environment right away. If an employee complains, investigate and fix the problem before it affects performance.

Recent case: Louis, who is black, was fired from his job as a steel fabricator after he ran a forklift over a steel plate and then got into an argument about the accident with a white co-worker.

Louis was fired. The company said the reason was that he had been the aggressor in the argument and had a poor performance history. His most recent performance reviews noted that he had difficulty getting along with others and sometimes ignored his supervisor’s directions.

He sued, alleging that he had worked in a racially hostile work en­­­­vironment since the day he was hired.

Louis recounted managers’ frequent use of the term “boy” to address him. He described incidents in which co-workers used the N-word and suggested President Obama would be assassinated if he won re-election. Plus, co-workers sometimes threatened him. His supervisors either ignored his complaints or told him he was old enough to defend himself.

Louis also argued that the harassment contributed to his poor per­­­­­­for­­m­­­­ance reviews which then contributed to his discharge.

First, the court concluded that what Louis described could constitute a racially hostile work environment—especially the frequent use of racial slurs and the term “boy.” It also noted that management not only failed to stop the harassment, but may have participated.

It also concluded that if a hostile work environment affects work performance, then disciplining the employee for that poor performance may not be justified. In fact, it may instead be evidence of discrimination. The court said the case deserved a jury trial. (Billips v. Benco Steel, No. 5:10-CV-95, WD NC, 2013)

Use proactive approach to defuse hostile environment

This case illustrates a fairly common phenomenon. Even if an employer has a robust anti-­harassment policy, aggrieved employees really don’t want to have to use it. If they complain to a supervisor and nothing changes, they may not trust the system enough to use it again.

Instead, they’ll put up with the har­­­­assment, which is likely to increase. Then the harassed em­­ployee’s performance suffers even as he tried to hold onto his job.

Of course, once the employer fires the employee, he has nothing left to lose (and everything to gain) by filing a lawsuit. By then, it’s too late to fix the problem.

The answer is a proactive approach. Make sure employees feel comfortable reporting harassment. Learn their attitudes by conducting confidential surveys. Stop by work areas for snap inspections, looking for graffiti or other telltale signs of hostility.

Check performance reviews for signs that declining performance may correlate to trouble getting along with co-workers. That may signal a hostile environment ­problem.

This article originally appeared on Business Management subscribers can access an enhanced version of Billips v. Benco Steel.

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