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.

Eric B. Meyer

You know that scientist in the action movie who has all the right answers if only the government would just pay attention? Eric B. Meyer, Esq. gets companies HR-compliant before the action sequence. Serving clients nationwide, Eric is a member of the Labor & Employment Practice Group and Chair of the #SocialMedia Practice Group at Dilworth Paxson LLP. He's also a volunteer EEOC mediator, a paid private mediator, and publisher of The Employer Handbook (www.TheEmployerHandbook.com), which is pretty much the best employment law blog ever. That, and he's been quoted in the British tabloids. #Bucketlist.