- A Black woman employed at Pret A Manger, an international chain of sandwich shops, has sued the company claiming race bias and hostile work environment under New York City law (Battle v. Pret A Manger USA (Limited) and Jairo Ramos, No. 26670/2020E (Supreme Court of the State of New York County of Bronx, July 1, 2020)).
- Shaquana Battle alleged she was subjected to daily use of a racial slur by her manager and co-workers while working at the New York City store. After she complained to the corporate office, Battle said she was given reduced hours, passed over for promotions, singled out for criticism and assigned menial tasks.
- Battle's attorneys said in a statement to HR Dive's sister site Food Dive that Pret denied that the plaintiff faced discrimination at work and "downplayed the use of the racial slur as mere 'inappropriate language' that 'was not being used in a way intended as derogatory.'" Pret A Manger did not respond to a request for comment.
The plaintiff's attorneys brought the case pursuant to the New York City Human Rights Law, under which they said "companies are accountable for their managers' discriminatory conduct, including participation in a racially hostile environment and the failure to prevent such an environment when the manager knows about it."
To support a claim for hostile work environment under federal law, a workplace must be "intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people" to be considered unlawful. Petty slights, annoyances and isolated work incidents, unless extremely serious, generally aren't enough to make a case for unlawful behavior, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Courts applying federal law have found allegations of the near daily use of a racial slur to be enough to survive summary judgment. In April, the 5th Circuit reinstated the claim of a sheet metal worker who alleged hostile work environment, claiming that he was subjected to "near daily" racial slurs. In reversing the trial court's decision on summary judgment for the employer, the appeals court said the harassment alleged was sufficiently severe and pervasive to support his claim and that the employer was on notice because of the plaintiff's multiple complaints and may have failed to take remedial action.
Attorneys have recommended that complaints be investigated promptly and taken seriously by HR — even if the alleged harasser says he or she was "just kidding." Brushing off complaints can encourage inappropriate behavior, eventually paving the way for a lawsuit. HR should make sure that a robust reporting system in place, experts say. Employers should follow up on employee complaints with a prompt and good-faith investigation of the allegations likely to land an employer in court and take swift and appropriate action where needed, according to employment law attorneys.