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Diversity Training and Investigation May Save Employer from Hostile Work Environment Claim

by The Human Equation, Inc. on 10/14/2010
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Diversity in the workplace is a good thing. When men and women of different races, religions, ethnicities, and ages work together in an environment of tolerance and respect, the possibilities are limitless. Employers that encourage expression of the different beliefs, perspectives, and attitudes that necessarily flow from a diverse workforce generally reap significant returns. However, while employers may enjoy significant benefits from maintaining a diverse workforce, those same differences may also lead to conflict.

While conflict in the workplace can bring about numerous negative consequences, such as decreased productivity and low employee morale, employers who fail to control the degree of diversity-based conflict in their workplace can face the oftentimes severe consequence of a hostile work environment lawsuit brought by an aggrieved employee under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII).

Title VII is the federal law that prohibits employment discrimination against any individual based on that individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. According to the United States Supreme Court, Title VII affords employees the right to work in an environment free from discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult because such abuse can so infect a workplace that it alters the terms or conditions of an individual’s employment.

In order to prevail in hostile work environment claim, an aggrieved employee must generally establish that he or she suffered intentional harassment based on a protected category, such as sex or race; that the harassment was severe or pervasive; that the harassment detrimentally affected the employee; that the harassment would have detrimentally affected a reasonable person in like circumstances; and that there is a basis for holding the employer liable. Upon establishing these elements, an employee may be entitled to recover significant damages from his or her employer.

However, while employers may not be able to completely eliminate the conflict resulting from maintaining a diverse workplace, a federal court recently reaffirmed the fact that employers can take steps to protect against hostile work environment liability under Title VII. The court’s opinion underscores the fact that by being proactive, employers can avoid hostility in the workplace, and, just as important, reduce the risk of a damaging hostile work environment judgment under Title VII.

The case involved an African-American employee who was subjected to instances of racial harassment by his supervisor in the form of derogatory statements and text messages. While the instances were few, and therefore arguably not pervasive, they did involve the use of the N-word, which according to the court “can quickly change the atmosphere, environment, and culture of a workplace from positive to poisonous,” thereby satisfying the severity requirement.

Although the court found that the supervisor’s actions did create a hostile work environment, the court summarily held that the employer was not liable to the employee as a result of the manner in which the employer responded to the situation. Within three days of learning about the supervisor’s actions, the employer began an investigation into the allegations. During the investigation, the aggrieved employee requested a transfer away from the perpetrating supervisor, which the employer granted. The employer’s investigation involved interviewing not only the complaining employee, but six other employees having knowledge of the substance of the complaints.

As a result of the investigation, the employer determined that the supervisor acted inappropriately and issued a final warning in his personnel file. The employer also conducted in-house diversity training to educate its staff about racial harassment and workplace diversity.

According to the court, the employer’s actions were reasonably calculated to prevent future instances of racial harassment by not only the supervisor, but other employees as well. The court held that since these measures were logically and reasonably calculated to prevent further instances of harassment, the employer could not be held liable for the hostile work environment created by the supervisor.

There are several lessons that can be learned from this court’s opinion. First, employers must be proactive in policing claims of hostile work environment. Second, upon learning of improper behavior, employers must respond quickly by promptly investigating the allegations, including interviewing all involved parties. Third, employers should train all employees about diversity and the manner in which they must behave in order to foster a respectful and tolerant workplace. Training should take place upon hiring as well as periodically throughout employment. Finally, once the investigation is complete, employers must implement logical and reasonably calculated measures designed to end the harassment.

Although these lessons are critical to avoiding hostile work environment liability, perhaps the greatest lesson to be taken from this opinion is that employers are not powerless to prevent the development of a hostile work environment in their workplace. By demanding tolerance and respect from their workforce, employers can enjoy all the benefits of maintaining a diverse workforce without any of the conflict—truly a win-win situation.

If you want to train your workforce about diversity in the workplace, click here.

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