- A Nike employee who claimed that his supervisor repeatedly mocked his accent was allowed to proceed with his hostile work environment claim (Dugandzic v. Nike, Inc., No. 19-11793 (11th Cir. March 30, 2020)).
- The employee, Rajko Dugandzic, said his supervisor mocked him over the employee intercom system and in the break room, and that she also blew in his face, failed to greet him and yelled "Boo" at him.
- While there were some inconsistencies in Dugandzic's testimony, they simply created a question of credibility for the jury to decide, said the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The 11th Circuit also rejected Nike's argument that Dugandzic’s supervisor could not have engaged in national origin bias because she did not know Dugandzic was Croatian: "If she was mocking his 'foreign accent,' it follows that she could be harassing him based on his national origin even if she did not know the specific national origin."
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), "National origin discrimination involves treating people (applicants or employees) unfavorably because they are from a particular country or part of the world, because of ethnicity or accent, or because they appear to be of a certain ethnic background (even if they are not)."
As the court in this case noted, national origin bias or harassment can occur even if the perpetrator does not know the victim's ethnicity or nationality. "Simple teasing" or "offhand comments," says the EEOC, are not sufficient to establish a hostile work environment, but the line is not always clear.
In one recent case, a woman of Middle Eastern Kurdish descent from Iraq who said she was asked during a promotion interview where she came from, and called a terrorist by a co-worker, failed to show national origin bias. However, a different court allowed a Marriott worker to proceed with his hostile work environment claim after allegedly being called, among other things, "an Egyptian rat."
Experts encourage employers to impose consequences for bad behavior, investigate complaints and train all levels of the workforce in order to foster a respectful and positive workplace atmosphere. Even when comments or conduct don't rise to the level of creating a legally actionable hostile work environment, they can still create unhappiness, stress and preventable turnover.