Training about racism can foster a hostile work environment. Wait, WHAT?!?


Wait a minute, Eric! Weren’t you just telling us that anti-harassment training is part of the backbone of a compliant workplace?

I did. But, occasionally, employers can step over the line.

I’ll give you a recent example from a federal court opinion involving a college professor claiming he was forced to quit his job.

Why did he quit?

According to the plaintiff’s federal court complaint, the defendant university, which held itself out as “the most diverse campus within” its network of college campuses “and the only majority-minority campus,” took training on race way too far.

The plaintiff claimed that he had to attend at least five conferences or trainings that discussed racial issues in “essentialist and deterministic terms—ascribing negative traits to white people or white teachers without exception and as flowing inevitably from their race.”

  • At a training following the murder of George Floyd, the Assistant Vice Provost for Educational Equity “led the faculty in a breathing exercise in which she instructed the `White and non-Black people of color to hold it just a little longer—to feel the pain.'”
  • A conference on “multiculturalism” included “supposed examples of `racist’ comments” where every hypothetical perpetrator was white.
  • At an event called “Arts and Humanities as Activism,” the facilitator allegedly “condemn[ed] white people for no other reason than they spoke or were simply present while being `white,'” including by “condemn[ing] . . . `white elites’ and `white self-interest.'”
  • At an “antiracism pedagogy” meeting, the Chair of the English Department spoke of race-conscious grading.
  • Another training included an excerpt that “accused white faculty” of `unwittingly reproduc[ing] racist discourses and practices in our classroom.”

Federal law prohibits harassment based on race that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the plaintiff’s employment and create an abusive working environment. Here, the plaintiff pled enough facts to establish that these meetings, some personal interactions, and a few emails (including one from the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to all employees “calling on white people” to “feel terrible,” about their “own internalized white supremacy,” and to “hold other white people accountable”) plausibly amounted to ‘pervasive’ harassment.

But hear me. Employers should not abandon anti-harassment training.

Indeed, the court made clear that “discussing in an educational environment the influence of racism on our society does not necessarily violate federal law.”

It added that “[t]raining on concepts such as ‘white privilege,’ ‘white fragility,’ implicit bias, or critical race theory can contribute positively to nuanced, important conversations about how to form a healthy and inclusive working environment.”

So the takeaway for employers is that communication and substance matter.

The court cautioned that “[w]hen employers talk about race—any race…with a constant drumbeat of essentialist, deterministic, and negative language, they risk liability under federal law.”

“Doing What’s Right – Not Just What’s Legal”
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