Yes, 2 Racial Slurs in 24 Hours Can Cause a Hostile Work Environment

By Eric B. Meyer

Last year, I channelled Bill Clinton in this blog post about how courts rarely recognize a single incident or two as creating what the law deems a hostile work environment.

Yeah, about that.

Even a few isolated comments can create a hostile work environment.

Two courts, two views

In Boyer-Liberto v. Fontainebleu Corp, the full panel of the Richmond, Virginia-based Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that two aggressive racial slurs made to an employee within a 24-hour period, may create a hostile work environment. (Here, the plaintiff, who is African-American, was twice called a “porch monkey.” And, each time, the harasser threatened the plaintiff).

Further, the court recognized that “an employee is protected from retaliation when she reports an isolated incident of harassment that is physically threatening or humiliating, even if a hostile work environment is not engendered by that incident alone.” (The plaintiff alleged that she was fired soon after reporting the isolated incidents).

But, don’t focus on a few isolated comments.

This case as an outlier. It’s a rare situation that two comments are made in circumstances that are severe enough to satisfy the legal requirements for a hostile work environment.

Without condoning bigotry, sexism, and other workplace nastiness, the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that “simple teasing, offhand comments, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not amount to discriminatory changes in the terms and conditions of employment.”

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Even minor complaints should be taken seriously

But those offhand comments, while insufficient on their own to create a hostile work environment, can eventually cross the line if repeated enough. Therefore, when training your managers and supervisors on how to address employee complaints, remind them that no complaint is too minor to be taken seriously.

  • First, unchecked behavior often repeats itself and can eventually create a true hostile work environment for the victim.
  • Second, a single harasser may have more than one victim. So, by ignoring one employee’s complaint of harassment, you risk exposing a number of employees to behavior that has no place in the workplace.

This was originally published on Eric B. Meyer’s blog, The Employer Handbook.

  • majix

    Heysus H Christoo, everytime someone is “MEAN” to you and hurts your feelings is not an excuse to play the victim race card! Grow up and realize life is not fair, life is not equal and all the whining and crying is not going to change human nature drastically. All populations have a group they discriminate against, it isn’t right, but it happens and will continue to happen, unless all babies receive a frontal lobotomy at birth. Humans want to identify with a group, and will protect that group from what is perceived as threats from what it has identified as a different or lessor group. Instead of whining and playing victim race card, turn situation around and become a positive influence within gestalt.

    • MG

      Or maybe the aggressor should have to learn that unprofessional conduct in the workplace will not be tolerated and that there will be consequences for the perpetrator of said conduct. Terminating the target of the abuse doesn’t do anything. It emboldens the perpetrator and he’ll end up being like a virus in the workplace.

  • skulldruggery

    1 racial slur can get you punched in your frackin mouth, so yeah id say things can become fairly hostile fast.

  • DAVID

    I walked off my last job with no notice and still got UE. They ruled I was justified in leaving due to racial discrimination, harassment, and a hostile working environment. I’m white and my supervisor was Mexican. I think one of the things that sealed the deal was the plant GM admitting that a clerk was writing RUSH on so many of my orders that the word lost it’s meaning (if everything is a rush, nothing is) and that she was just doing it to pizz me off. Unfortunately he never put a stop to it.

  • Ash