- A woman and her husband, both employees of the Michigan correctional system, have been awarded $11.4 million by a jury on their claims of race discrimination, hostile work environment and retaliation, according to court documents obtained by HR Dive.
- Probation officer Lisa Griffey said in court papers that she was subjected to a "culture of racism" while working at Michigan's Department of Corrections. Among other things, Griffey said she endured racist slurs and that co-workers watched and showed her racist videos. She also said her attempts to file a "meaningful complaint" were "sabotaged" by the harassment counselor, whom filings described as "very friendly" with staff about whom she had complained.
- Because of the work environment, Griffey transferred to another office, but she said the race discrimination and retaliation continued. Her husband also was allegedly forced to retire from his job as a deputy warden when phony disciplinary charges were brought against him. The jury awarded Griffey $5.132 million and her husband $6.25 million. The Detroit News reported that Michigan is expected to appeal the decision.
At least one court has ruled that a "handful of incidents" over the span of several years wasn't enough to substantiate an employee's claims of disparate treatment, hostile work environment, constructive discharge and retaliation. However, another court has concluded that workplace conditions need not be “hellish” — as this workplace may have been — in order for a plaintiff to prevail.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has said in a guidance that "[p]etty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality." Conduct must create a work environment that would be "intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people" in order to be considered unlawful. Offensive conduct can include offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name calling and interference with work performance, among other things, the EEOC says.
When it comes to addressing harassment, employment law experts and the EEOC have generally recommended that employers focus on prevention rather than remediation. "Prevention is the best tool to eliminate harassment in the workplace," the EEOC says. The agency suggests that employers:
- Clearly communicate to employees that unwelcome harassing conduct will not be tolerated.
- Establish an effective complaint or grievance process.
- Provide anti-harassment training to managers and employees.
- Take immediate and appropriate action when an employee complains.
- Create an environment in which employees feel free to raise concerns and are confident that those concerns will be addressed.
- Encourage employees to report harassment to management at an early stage to prevent its escalation.
Experts have also suggested methods that HR can use to improve the process for conducting internal investigations.