Racist conduct must not be tolerated in the workplace; employees need to be held accountable for their behaviors

February 9, 2019

The celebration of Black History Month in Virginia is off to a rough start.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring have come under fire for racist photos and/or behaviors occurring more than 30 years ago when the governor was in medical school and the attorney general in college.

While we can reasonably believe that individuals dressing up as a black public figure for Halloween 30 years ago would not have fully understood the implications of their actions, there can be no excuse in today’s environment.

Too often employers assume that racist conduct happened in the past and that it is not a current-day problem.

Racist behaviors unfortunately are not a 30-year-old problem, but a current-day issue that, if occurring in the workplace, employers must immediately address.

For example, last fall four black men filed a discrimination lawsuit in California against their employer, a construction company, claiming they were subjected to a series of comments and actions of racial harassment.

The conduct by their co-workers included epithets in the bathrooms and black dolls hanging from nooses at job sites. In one case, the victim said his co-workers put feces in the soap dispensers, causing him to unknowingly wash his hands with feces.

He said that when he told his supervisor about the feces incident, his supervisor texted him: “We are all grown men. You need to get over this.”

The incidents are not from the 1980s, but allegedly occurred in 2017.

Attorneys for the men referred to the conduct as “terrorism” at work. The epithets included swastikas and racist messages left on bathroom walls.

One victim claimed he informed his manager of the images, but he said nothing was done to erase the graffiti or address the conduct.

Another victim recalled seeing two black dolls hanging in a restroom, with notes using racial slurs and threatening to kill workers. He said his supervisor had to escort him to his car after his shift each night.

Due to the harassment, the men sought therapy and had nightmares.

If even a fraction of the allegations is true, this case reminds us how far we still have to go to protect workers and eliminate harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

This starts with setting expectations, training managers and staff on acceptable conduct, training managers on how to address violations and then holding everyone accountable.

The managers’ responses to the victims, if true, do not comply with federal law. Federal law requires that organizations stop any acts of harassment or discrimination of which management knew or should have known.

To avoid any confusion, organizations need to set clear expectations for behavior and should start with zero tolerance for any use of racial epithets, images or innuendos.

Even if the co-workers believe that the conduct is welcome or they are just joking, the setting of “never ever” behaviors eliminates any confusion.

Further, the use of the “n” word at work, even if it is between people of the same race and/or appears to be used in a friendly, non-threatening manner, cannot be tolerated.

Managers must immediately address any violation, including telling human resources so an investigation can occur. Managers should document any evidence of racial images.

It is important that the organization can prove the behaviors and identify anyone involved in the conduct.

As an investigator, when I interview victims like the men involved in this case, I see the pain that victims experience when treated in this way.

While it’s difficult to imagine that any human could go to work and treat another person in this manner, employers cannot assume that such behaviors will not happen in their workplaces.

Employers need to make training of managers and employees a priority, but if not addressed immediately after violations occur, the training will be a waste of time and money.

Employers also need to commit to holding employees accountable for the behaviors, and managers accountable for failing to respond upon being on notice.