Racially offensive slurs and behaviors have no place in our workplace

May 13, 2023

Racial slurs and other racially offensive conduct, coupled with alleged retaliation, resulted in a $1.2 million settlement of a lawsuit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The EEOC announced earlier this month that “the Whiting-Turner Contracting Company, a construction management and general contracting company headquartered in Baltimore, will pay $1.2 million to a class of Black former workers and furnish other relief to settle a race harassment and retaliation lawsuit.”

Whiting-Turner was the prime contractor for the construction of a Google data center in Tennessee. In 2018 and 2019, Black employees were allegedly subjected to a racially hostile work environment in which employees referred to Black workers as “boy,” “m——f——-” and “you.” Many port-a-potties and buildings on the jobsite were defaced with racially offensive graffiti, and a noose was displayed in the workplace on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday,” according to the announcement.

The EEOC also alleged that Whiting-Turner engaged in retaliation. Specifically, the EEOC alleged that Black employees reported these issues to Whiting-Turner several times. Whiting-Turner allegedly failed to investigate the complaints and instead terminated two employees who complained of discrimination.

As a result of the settlement, the company will incorporate a “strict prohibition against racial graffiti, racial jokes, racial slurs, racial epithets and hate symbols into its anti-harassment policy,” among other relief.

In announcing the settlement, the EEOC focused on the need to eliminate racism in the construction industry, citing the shocking findings in this case and the concerns that they were “not an isolated occurrence in the industry.”

The EEOC also suggested that managers and supervisors should be trained on Title VII, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin, and companies should take prompt action “at the first sign of trouble.”

Unfortunately, I hear all the time, “You don’t understand our culture” or “That’s just the industry.” Even though all industries have the potential to engage in atrocious discriminatory conduct, whether due to age, race, national origin, color, sex, etc., they all think they are exempt from the rules because that’s just how it has always been.

Every employee deserves a civil, safe and respectful workplace. It is unimaginable that any person should have to experience these aggressions, and even worse that the company needs a strict policy to prohibit the very things that no company should ever have tolerated in the first place.

Whiting-Turner professes on its website a “demonstrated commitment” to diversity. The site says, “We recognize the value of diversity and foster an inclusive environment built on collaboration, community and respect. People are our most valuable assets, and we are committed to providing equal opportunity and advancement for all of our employees and trade partners. Cultivating a diverse community and embracing a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives is crucial to our success.”

Too many organizations flaunt commitments to respectful workplaces, diversity and inclusion, and then tolerate and fail to immediately address completely unacceptable conduct like that which allegedly occurred on this worksite.

Employers should train managers, supervisors and employees on your company’s expectations and investigate any allegation that those same expectations have been violated. Immediately take action to address them if they are found to have occurred. If they recur, then you aren’t doing enough. Never excuse this type of behavior (or sexual harassment, or harassment based on disability or any protected characteristic) – even if it’s been like this for years – or you assume no one is offended.

Employers can avoid the abuse and harm that come from the misconduct and the liability by making a real commitment, not just one on the website for show. Set expectations. Share expectations. Hold people accountable.