It may be difficult to believe for people who haven’t experienced it, but active racism permeates all too many American workplaces. We’re not referring to “microaggressions” or subtle, unthinking bias reflected in hiring and promotion—we’re talking about routine abuse involving racial epithets and displays of symbols that threaten violence.
In every case that has reached America’s court system, another thing is usually made depressingly clear: The employer was informed of this unacceptable behavior and either chose to do nothing to end it, and in some cases actually led and participated in the abuse.
If you doubt this may be true, consider the experience over the years of Richard B. Cohen, an attorney with the law firm of FisherBroyles, who represents employers. He informed us recently: “I’ve written numerous articles and blog posts over the last 15 years about racial animus still rearing its ugly head in the workplace—and involved in virtually every such case where the victim is an African-American there is the presence of the N-word—or worse, a noose. Or both!”
And if you also are tempted to believe that this behavior is waning and that casual racism is little more than a fading relic of the past, you need to understand that this is a problem that persists and continues to manifest itself in almost every part of the country and in widely varying workplaces.
On June 2, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed suit in federal court charging the CCC Group Inc. construction company for numerous instances of this kind of behavior that took place at a worksite in the state of New York. In its announcement, EEOC pointed out that “one white supervisor attempted to snare an employee with a noose” while another one “told an African-American employee that for Halloween, ‘You don’t even have to dress up. I will dress in white and put a noose around your neck and we’ll walk down the street together.’”
Jeffrey Burstein, regional attorney for the EEOC’s New York District Office, noted that this was just one of the most recent of numerous examples of abhorrent racial discrimination and harassment that African-American employees have experienced over the years. “The use of a noose is especially vicious,” he said. “Such misconduct violates federal law and common decency.”
This terrible behavior directed at African-American employees hasn’t slowed down, according to Cohen. “The workplace is a microcosm of society; in other words, what happens in the workplace is simply a reflection of the dynamics of society’s tensions and conflicts, as can painfully be seen these days on the streets of hundreds of America’s cities and towns.”
Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), points out, “For many people, the workplace is often the first, and sometimes only, place they encounter people unlike themselves. That experience—what happens in the workplace—shapes our thinking about others, and we take that out into the community and home with us.”
Taylor adds, “Rooting out and exposing bias in our workplaces, especially unconscious bias, can have a transformative effect on the larger world we move through.”
Incidents Pile Up
Consider these incidents of workplace racism that have been reported over the last three years:
● A noose was found in an Ohio foundry, and the EEOC says one of the company’s top officials routinely subjected employees to derogatory racial comments.
● A life insurance company agreed to pay $20.5 million to employees who alleged race, national origin and sex discrimination, and retaliation. African-Americans were referred to as “lazy,” had stress balls thrown at them, and were subjected to racially demeaning cartoons, while a high-level manager called African-American female employees the company’s “resident street walkers.”
● At an Illinois fence installation company, a black employee was repeatedly subjected to racial slurs and comments and other offensive conduct, including the display of a noose. Although the company was aware that racial harassment was occurring, it took no action to stop it., EEOC reported.
● A Georgia grocery store owner allegedly subjected three African-American employees to daily use of the N-word and called them “monkey” and other racial epithets. EEOC said the owner also prominently displayed racially offensive posters in a non-public work area.
● At a Minnesota mattress manufacturer, it was found by EEOC that employees were subjected to racial harassment in the form of displays of KKK hoods, nooses and verbal expressions of racial slurs and jokes.
● A Minnesota construction company settled with the EEOC after being accused of subjecting two African-American employees to racial harassment by a white supervisor, which included making racially derogatory comments and use of the N-word, and making a noose out of electrical wires and threatening to hang them.
● At a Brooklyn-based construction company, black laborers were routinely referred to by the N-word, “gorilla” and similar epithets. An employee who complained was fired—another common experience in these cases.
Not surprisingly, most of these incidents are also accompanied by complaints alleging other kinds of discrimination, particularly when it came to work assignments, promotions and disciplinary actions.
The EEOC and employment lawyers like FisherBroyles’ Cohen are not the only ones losing patience with this sort of behavior by employers and their continuing unwillingness to stamp it out. Federal courts in the past had upheld the idea that the single use of the N-word in a workplace could not constitute legal discrimination unless it was part of a pattern of other discriminatory behavior, but in recent years some courts have begun to hold that it can be.
“The latest events show that racism—overt or implicit—is unfortunately embedded in the very fabric of our society, and therefore, in our workplaces,” Cohen doesn’t hesitate to inform us. “Until racism is eliminated from our society, it will, of course, pop up in our workplaces.”
He makes it clear that employers would be well-advised to take all steps necessary to stamp out acts or expressions of racism by going beyond simply making it clear that this is behavior that will not be tolerated. “I know that many companies have employee handbooks with anti-harassment and discrimination provisions—which all employers should have—but employers must do more.”
Human resources experts say that employers need to insist on including conducting professional training sessions for all employees, much the same as employers are expected to do when it comes to sexual harassment training, which is now required by law in several states.
“Make sure that senior managers are acutely aware of your anti-harassment policies and procedures and provide good role models for the workplace—top-down behavior is perhaps the most important preventive measure which you can take,” Cohen stresses. “Employees look to the executives as role models to see what is or is not acceptable behavior.”