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Recognizing the Wide Variety of Hostile Work Environment Claims

It is unlawful to harass someone because of their race, which includes using racial slurs, making offensive or derogatory remarks regarding race, displaying racially-offensive symbols, such as swastikas or nooses. Harassment must be so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile work environment. Therefore, teasing or offhand comments that are isolated events are not sufficient to establish a hostile work environment. Harassment can also be actionable if it leads to an adverse employment action such as termination or demotion. However, whether certain comments actually constitute harassment can be rather tricky.

Barbara v. Here North America, LLC

In Barbara v. Here North America, LLC, the employee claims a supervisor used the “nword” and other racially-charged comments in the employee’s presence. The supervisor also hung a sign over the employee’s workstation that said “Colored.” When the employee complained about the racially offensive comments and actions, the employer did not take appropriate action to deal with the harassment. The court, in that case, allowed the hostile environment claim to proceed, finding that there was unwelcome conduct or comments based on race and that harassment was “sufficiently severe or pervasive” so as to “alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive working environment.”

Paul v. Saltzman, Tanis, Pittel, Levin & Jacobson, Inc.

In this case, the employee was being referred to by her Hispanic co-workers as a “black monkey girl.” When she complained to her employer about the racial slur, she was told to “let it go.” In response to the employee’s continued complaints, she was terminated. Despite these facts, the court held that the racial slurs were not sufficiently severe or pervasive to create an illegal hostile work environment. In ruling, the court stated that there is no single, determinative factor, nor is there “a mathematically precise test” that can be used to decide these claims.

Yeboah-Kankam v. Prince William County School Board

The claims in Yeboah-Kankam v. Prince William County School Board are rather unique. In that case, the employee took issue with the fact that a school district representative referred to him as a “confident, African American male.” In addition to the fact that the employee had a long, documented history of inappropriate conduct at work, the court also explained that the comment was not even offensive in nature. So, his claims were dismissed.

What Does This Tell Us About Hostile Work Environment Claims?

Most people understand that racially offensive language is wrong, particularly in the workplace. Most employers understand this as well and prohibit the use of it in their company policies, especially when used by supervisors and managers. However, when it comes to legal claims, not every complaint of offensive comments or actions will be actionable. As the cases we have discussed here make clear, using the “n-word” or calling someone a “black monkey girl” may be the basis of a hostile work environment claim. However, simply referring to someone as African American without something more offensive is not. If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination or retaliation in the workplace, or if you have any other questions regarding your employment rights, please contact the experienced employment law attorneys at Wrady & Michel, LLC. You can contact us either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880. We are here to serve you!