Last year, I channelled Bill Clinton in this blog post about how courts rarely recognize a single incident or two as creating what the law deems a hostile work environment.
Yeah, about that.
Even a few isolated comments can create a hostile work environment.
In Boyer-Liberto v. Fontainebleu Corp. (opinion here), the full panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that two aggressive racial slurs made to an employee within a 24-hour period, may create a hostile work environment. (Here, the plaintiff, who is African-American, was twice called a “porch monkey.” And, each time, the harasser threatened the plaintiff).
Further, the court recognized that “an employee is protected from retaliation when she reports an isolated incident of harassment that is physically threatening or humiliating, even if a hostile work environment is not engendered by that incident alone.” (The plaintiff alleged that she was fired soon after reporting the isolated incidents).
More reason not ignore isolated comments.
This case as an outlier. It’s a rare situation that two comments are made in circumstances that are severe enough to satisfy the legal requirements for a hostile work environment. Without condoning bigotry, sexism, and other workplace nastiness, the Supreme Court has recognized that “simple teasing, offhand comments, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not amount to discriminatory changes in the terms and conditions of employment.”
But those offhand comments, while insufficient on their own to create a hostile work environment, can eventually cross the line if repeated enough. Therefore, when training your managers and supervisors on how to address employee complaints, remind them that no complaint is too minor to be taken seriously. First, unchecked behavior often repeats itself and can eventually create a true hostile work environment for the victim. Second, a single harasser may have more than one victim. So, by ignoring one employee’s complaint of harassment, you risk exposing a number of employees to behavior that has no place in the workplace.