Racial Slurs are Never Appropriate in the WorkplaceTuesday, March 2nd, 2010
Last week’s Division of Civil Right’s (DCR) decision in Lin v. Dane Construction Co., DCR Docket No. EM14WB-54045 (Feb. 24, 2010) provides a good reminder that racial slurs and stereotypes in the workplace are unacceptable, regardless of whether or not they are uttered in front of members of that racial group.
In Lin, the DCR found that the owner of a company made numerous derogatory comments about African-Americans and Jamaicans in front of the Complainant employee, who was Asian. For example, the DCR found that the owner had used the word “n___r” on several occasions and ranted against someone that he assumed was Jamaican based on his “cool runnings” accent. The DCR found that the owner
acknowledged that he used [the word “n___r”] on at least one occasion within earshot of Complainant. He explained that following an argument over the phone with a client he believed to be Jamaican, he used the slur “n___r” both in his office and perhaps a second time as he continued his “rant” coming down the stairs. He stated that this was an isolated incident and that he did not regularly use such language in the office. However, he admitted that in “private office personal conversations, these words may have popped up, been overheard” and that “[in our office,] we can discuss things the way we want.”
The Complainant was upset by this, as her fiancé was Jamaican, and their child was half Jamaican. Further, according to the DCR, the evidence established that the owner was aware of these facts before he made the derogatory comments. When Complainant reminded him that her son was bi-racial, he laughed off her concern, and told her that he wasn’t referring to her son. Ultimately, the Complainant quit, without another job, due to the continuing comments and lack of response to her complaints.
Based on this evidence, the DCR concluded that there was probable cause of a racially hostile work environment in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. The DCR further concluded that the Complainant was “constructively discharged,” as a reasonable person would find that the working conditions were intolerable and that there was no option but to resign.
Although this is only a probable cause finding, and not a final determination, this case should serve as a reminder to prudent employers that inappropriate racial comments have no place in the workplace, regardless of who may or may not be listening. Further, even “private” comments may serve as a basis for a hostile work environment claim. Finally, if an employee complains about a hostile environment, this concern should be taken seriously, and not laughed off.
The DCR’s decision is at http://www.nj.gov/oag/newsreleases10/02.24.10_Shi-Juan_Lin_v._Dane_Construction.pdf