Why intent doesn’t matter when a white guy gifts watermelon to his black co-workers. Or does it?

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The Evil HR Lady, Suzanne Lucas, beat me to it.

On Tuesday, Suzanne wrote here about a volunteer firefighter, who is white. And that white firefighter brought a watermelon to the fire station as a gift for his co-workers. According to this Fox 2 report, 90 percent of his co-workers are black.

This may not end well.

Maybe racist or definitely racist?

Before I get to the end of the watermelon story, I want to segue into this Eleventh Circuit opinion entered on Tuesday. The opinion details the hostile work environment claims of a black man working in what appears to be a predominantly white workplace. Among other things, the plaintiff alleged that his white supervisor and others would call him “you people” or “boy,” instead of saying his name.

The opinion details the hostile work environment claims of a black man working in what appears to be a predominantly white workplace. Among other things, the plaintiff alleged that his white supervisor and others would call him “you people” or “boy,” instead of saying his name.  In concluding that there was no hostile work environment based on race, the lower court concluded that calling a black man “boy” is “not always evidence of racial animus.” This is because the speaker’s meaning may depend on context and the lower court cherrypicked evidence that other white employees were also called “boy.”

In concluding that there was no hostile work environment based on race, the lower court reasoned that calling a black man “boy” is “not always evidence of racial animus.” This is because the speaker’s meaning may depend on context and the lower court cherrypicked evidence that other white employees were also called “boy.”

But, to a person, how many of you reading this post would walk up to a black co-worker and call him “you people” or “boy”?

(Sorry, I didn’t mean to cause a massive HR heart attack).

And that’s why the appellate court reversed.

And that’s why the white firefighter was fired.

Because, while there is nothing inherently racist about a watermelon,  the powers that be concluded that the “firefighter (probationary employee) engaged in unsatisfactory work behavior which was deemed offensive and racially insensitive to members of the Detroit Fire Department.” (Heck, if you go on Westlaw and run a search for race discrimination cases in which watermelon is involved, you’ll get over 1oo hits).

Yet, maybe there’s something to what the lower court was saying.

Check this out, Fox 2 reported yesterday that the black Detroit firefighters were defending the white recruit fired over the watermelon.

So, what’s the takeaway here?

Well, we’re taught in HR 101 that intent does not matter. That is, if a victim in a hostile work environment situation is offended by something a harasser says or does, then it doesn’t matter whether there was any malice in the harasser’s heart. But sometimes, there’s no intent to cause harm and, ultimately, no harm, no foul.

Except sometimes, there’s no intent to cause harm and the victim isn’t offended.

But how do you know? Take it away, Evil HR Lady:

Never Jump to Conclusions

While accusations of racism or sexism should always be taken seriously and investigated, immediate firings should be extremely rare. There are always multiple sides to every story and you must listen to all sides before making a decision. You can always suspend someone until the investigation is complete rather than terminating someone immediately.

Yes, you want to be cautious as far as race is concerned, but you don’t want to be so cautious that you make the wrong decision.

 

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