A black employee who claimed that her boss, also black, called her “nigger” eight times, had her day in court recently, as she put her race discrimination claims to a federal jury.
The defense argued that the use of the n-word here was culturally acceptable because both the “victim” and the “harasser” black. But, during closing argument, the plaintiff’s attorney told jurors, “When you use the word nigger to an African-American, no matter how many alternative definitions that you may try to substitute with the word nigger, that is no different than calling a Hispanic by the worst possible word you can call a Hispanic, calling a homosexual male the worst possible word that you can call a homosexual male.”
The jury agreed with the plaintiff. Larry Neumeister at The Huffington Post reports here, that the jury awarded the plaintiff $30,000 in punitive damages and $250,000 in compensatory damages.
While some may debate the impact of a white person directing the n-word at a black person versus a black person engaging in that same behavior, I’m not at all shocked that the jury didn’t accept the defense’s argument.
Remember folks, in a discrimination case, it does not matter the intent of the person making the comment. All that matters is how it is received and whether a reasonable person standing in the shoes of he “victim” would also be offended. So, use this case as a workplace lesson. Remind employees that what they say is all that matters — not what they intend. And when it comes to slurs, any word that any employee could perceive as a slur should be off-limits — no matter who says it or who hears it.
Hey, while some courts get into semantics, like considering which n-word is used when determining whether there exists a racially hostile work environment, don’t allow your company to be the one that has to make that argument.