- An African-American phlebotomist for the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Medical Center, Santa Monica recently won a $1.5 million jury award on her hostile work environment claims based on racially motivated discrimination, harassment and retaliation, according to a press release from the phlebotomist's attorney and the Associated Press (AP) (Birden v. The Regents of the University of California, No. BC6681389 (Los Angeles Superior Court May 30, 2017)).
- According to the press release, Nicole Birden experienced a work environment in which one co-worker addressed her using a racial slur and used another racial slur "frequently" at work. Other co-workers made negative remarks about her skin color and tampered with or threw away blood specimens she had drawn. UCLA terminated Birden "abruptly" in June 2016, even though it never reprimanded or disciplined her.
- UCLA Health issued a statement saying it is "disappointed by the verdict and considering all available options," according to AP. The medical facility also said it is committed to maintaining a discrimination- and harassment-free workplace.
Guidance from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines the conduct that can lead to a hostile work environment: "Petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality," it said. "To be unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people. Offensive conduct may include, but is not limited to, offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance."
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that the use of four racial slurs in a worker's presence was enough to find that a worker was subjected to an abusive work environment. The court noted that three of the four racial slurs contained a term recognized as "highly offensive and demeaning," and "perhaps the most offensive and inflammatory racial slur in English."
The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held earlier this year that a plaintiff is not required to prove a "hellish" workplace to establish a hostile work environment. In that case, the plaintiff's direct supervisor called him by a racial slur twice and the supervisor also threatened to write up his "black ass." While the district court found the harassment too infrequent (three slurs over a six-month period during a four-year employment) to be considered "pervasive," the appeals court said the supervisor's conduct was both severe and humiliating.
As employers move to rid their workplaces of incidents of harassment and hostility, they may want to focus on preventative measures. "Prevention is the best tool to eliminate harassment in the workplace," the EEOC says in its guidance. Employers are advised to:
- 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.