A black employee who claimed that her boss, also black, called her the n-word 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 [the n-word] to an African-American, no matter how many alternative definitions that you may try to substitute with the [n-word], 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.