Racials slurs, shotgun threats, but no why no hostile work environment?

It’s deja vu all over again.

Yesterday, in this post, I stressed how important it is for employers to take complaints of discrimination — even the head-scratchers — seriously. Today, I’ve got for you an opinion from a Kentucky federal court, where an employer’s swift, measured response to a series complaints of really egregious conduct, led to a defense verdict on a subsequent hostile work environment claim.

So what happened?

Well, the plaintiff, who is African-American, complained to her supervisor that one co-worker said:

  • “[N-words] always get in my way,” and
  • “Sometimes I just want to go get a shotgun and come in here and blow a [n-word]’s head off.”

HR investigated and suspended the harasser twice.

Then, there was a separate incident with another co-worker about which the plaintiff complained. This co-worker allegedly said:

  • She “felt like black guys were aggressive, that [black guys] don’t do nothing but do drugs and fight and want to kill each other,” and
  • “If you get your [n-word] ass out of the way, you wouldn’t have to worry about it.”

HR investigated and issued a written warning.  The conduct stopped.

In the subsequent lawsuit, well, I already told you what happened. But, in the court’s words:

An employer has a duty to take prompt and appropriate remedial action in response to complaints of racial harassment, and this duty presupposes that the employer is given enough information to take such action….This was not a situation where the employer was aware of these allegations of harassment but undertook no formal investigation or failed to interview any witnesses at all `to determine whether the complaints were valid or who was responsible for the mistreatment….On this record, GE took prompt and appropriate corrective action in response to Gaines’ reports to GE of the racial incidents. In both instances, GE promptly conducted an investigation of the alleged harassment resulting in the discipline of two employees.

If an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, here’s two ounces, just to be on the safe side.


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