For a few reasons.
By addressing harassment right away, it reduces the chances of repeat performances. That’s good for the employee. That’s also good for the employer, because a successful hostile work environment claim requires behavior that is either severe or pervasive. To boot, an employer picks up an affirmative defense when it exercises reasonable care to end harassment at work.
So, a workplace trainer like me should get “all the feels” — as the kids say — from this opinion from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in a case called Cable v. FCA US LLC.
Over a 14-month period, Ms. Cable says that she was harassed because of her race (African-American) on five different occasions. But, each time she complained, FCA’s Labor Relations Supervisor, Lawrence Wilson, handled it textbook.
- Cable complains a co-worker’s display of a voodoo doll. Wilson, who is African American, discussed this situation with her. Even though he did not believe that the doll had racial import, Wilson addressed it with Cable’s co-worker and told him to never wear the doll or have it at work. Cable did not see the doll again.
- Cable found the letters “NIG” etched into a “control box” at one of her workstations. Cable reported the etching to a supervisor, who reported it to Wilson. Within 48 hours, the etching is sanded away.
- Cable later noticed that the letter “N” had been etched into the control box in the same place as the “NIG” etching. Wilson directed maintenance workers to paint over the entire control panel. He also interviewed the 12 employees who had access to the workstation. And supervisors met with team members to discuss workplace discrimination and harassment and reviewed FCA’s policies prohibiting this conduct.
- Cable later saw a drawing of a face that she saw on a guardrail. Above the drawing were the words “Red Eye”—which she understood as a derogatory reference to African Americans. Wilson did not know of any “red eye” stereotypes and did not think that the drawing depicted Cable. Nevertheless, he directed maintenance staff to repaint the guardrail.
- Months later, Cable saw an etching on a different machine that she believed said “NIG” or “bitch.” After she complained about this etching to a supervisor, Wilson had it sanded and painted over.
Ms. Cable sued the company, claiming a hostile work environment. The lower court determined that her claim failed because the behavior about which she complained was neither severe nor pervasive. Taking a different approach on appeal, the Seventh Circuit gave a shout-out to the company’s reasonable and timely efforts to keep the workplace free of harassment. Even though there multiple incidents, the company took measured steps that were reasonably designed to end it.
Company wins and Mr. Wilson is the hero we need!
Use this case as a model for reminding your supervisors how to respond to complaints of harassment, including those that may not technically involve discrimination.