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Frequently Asked Questions About the Use of Racial Slurs in the Workplace

When people think of racial harassment or hostile work environment cases, the use of racial slurs is the most common complaint. It is unlawful to harass someone because of their race, which includes using racial slurs. 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.

Q. Does the intent of the person using the racial slur matter?

Appellate courts have held that it is improper for trial courts to consider whether the employees who used racial slurs intended to be offensive or cause harm, instead of whether a jury could find that both the subjective and objective effect was to pollute the environment with racially humiliating, offensive, or insulting conduct. It is improper for courts to discount the environmental effect of the racially offensive comments.

Q. What type of racial harassment is prohibited under federal law? 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.

Q. How severe or pervasive must the harassment be?

The first thing to remember is that this determination is made on a case-by-case basis because every situation is different. The following factors are considered, though none of them alone is dispositive, and not all of them are required:

• the frequency of the unwelcome discriminatory conduct;

• the severity of the conduct;

• whether the conduct was physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance;

• whether the conduct unreasonably interfered with work performance;

• the effect on the employee’s psychological well-being; and

• whether the harasser was a superior within the organization.

Q. Is One Racial Slur Ever Enough?

In order for there to be a case of workplace harassment, it “must be severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.” However, “petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality.” Typically, for the conduct to be sufficiently pervasive to meet the criteria there must be more than just an isolated incident. Put another way, the use of a single racial slur is usually not enough.


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 Birmingham 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!