Yesterday, I read this story from David Moye on Huffington Post about a young Jewish girl’s birthday party at which the guests — friends of the birthday girl — were allowed to frost cupcakes. Well, it seems that two of the party guests decided that it would be funny to frost a chocolate swastika into their cupcakes and upload photos to Snapchat.
The mortified mother of the birthday girl called it a “teachable moment” about the horrors of the Holocaust, which, ironically, the swastika frosters had just learned about in school.
So, what does this have to do with your workplace?
First, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is unlawful to create a hostile work environment for a victim based on, among other things, religion. Under a hostile work environment analysis, the intent of the “harasser” does not matter. That is, if a bunch of co-workers decide to present a Jewish colleague with cupcakes decorated with swastikas for her birthday, it really doesn’t matter whether the co-workers were being malicious — or just “joking around.” Rather, what’s important — under the law — is whether the recipient is offended and whether a reasonable person in her shoes would be offended.
Second, let’s distinguish between an incident at work and one involving kids. I can understand why the mother of the birthday girl would want to use this unfortunate incident as a teaching moment. As Carlos Galindo-Elvira, the director of the Anti-Defamation League in Arizona, told 12News, “When you joke with symbols like the swastika you begin to normalize them and make it very casual within our society.” Therefore, parents can (and must) use unfortunate incidents like this to teach their children right from wrong.
I fear that, as adults, people who make “mistakes” like this are less capable of change. Old dogs; new tricks. Plus, you’re in the business of running a business — not redeeming bigots (or those who use such poor judgment and appear to fall into the same category). So, if a similar unfortunate event should transpire in your workplace, reach for the stack of pink slips and start handing them out post haste. Otherwise, be prepared to have your company explain to someplace like the Huffington Post why such behavior warranted a second chance.
Third, because we want to avoid similar incidents in the office, ensure that workplace training includes a lesson on intent; workplace jokes involving protected classes are funny until they’re not funny, which may be in an instant.