Synopsis: In a recent decision, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, with appellate jurisdiction over the district courts in the following districts: Middle District of Alabama. Northern District of Alabama. … Southern District of Georgia, held that the use of the N-Word in the workplace one time is sufficient to trigger a hostile work environment. Additionally, the Eleventh Circuit held that an employer may be held liable for workplace harassment when the plaintiff admitted that she did not complain of harassment until her final day of employment (and when the employer alleged that the plaintiff never complained of harassment). In light of this decision, and in light of the increased focus on workplace harassment over the past year, employers should use this case as an opportunity to review their No Harassment Policies and update their employment law training—to proactively ensure that harassing conduct does not occur in their workplaces.
When faced with allegations of a hostile work environment, employers often rely on two defenses: First, in order to be actionable, a hostile work environment must be both “subjectively” and “objectively” hostile. In other words, the plaintiff must subjectively perceive the harassment to be abusive, and the work environment must be one “that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive.” Over the years, courts have typically required multiple instances of inappropriate or harassing behavior, in order to meet this standard. Second, if the harassing behavior was committed by co-workers, the plaintiff must have complained of the harassment. In other words, the employer must have knowledge of the harassing conduct (either actual or implied—companies cannot hide their heads in the sand) before it can be held liable.
In a recent decision, however, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that use of the N-Word on one occasion could create a hostile work environment, and the Court held that the employer could be held liable even though the plaintiff admitted that she never complained about alleged harassment until (allegedly) right before her termination. (In fact, the company denied that she ever complained at all.)
Given the increased media focus on workplace harassment, this case provides a good opportunity for employers to review their anti-harassment policies and procedures, in order to proactively ensure that harassment-related issues do not proliferate in the workplace.
Background on the Case
In Smelter v. Southern Home Care Services, Inc., the plaintiff had been hired by Southern Home Care Services in July 2013 as a customer service supervisor. As part of her job, the plaintiff was responsible for coordinating with caregivers and clients, scheduling in-home visits, and accurately recording all caregivers’ work time. There was no dispute that the plaintiff required extra training and committed many mistakes during her employment. In September 2013, she was terminated for poor performance, after a final incident in which she got in a heated argument with and yelled at a co-worker. Following her termination, the plaintiff asserted the following allegations:
- She had endured racist remarks from her co-workers nearly every day during her employment.
- During the argument with her co-worker on the last day of her employment, her co-worker had called her a “dumb black [N-Word].”
- Her co-workers had made derogatory comments about black men, black women, President Obama, and compared the plaintiff with a monkey from the movie Planet of the Apes.
- Her supervisor thought the racist comments were funny.
Although the plaintiff admitted that she had never complained about any of the comments prior to the final incident, the plaintiff alleged that she had told her supervisor about the harassment before she was terminated. Her supervisor claimed that she never complained about any race-related comments, and the plaintiff’s exit interview paperwork—which both the plaintiff and her supervisor signed—had no mention of any harassment-related complaints.
Ultimately, the district court granted summary judgment for the company, finding that the harassment the plaintiff allegedly experienced was not sufficiently severe or pervasive enough to constitute a hostile work environment, as a matter of law, and that the company had no knowledge of the alleged harassment. The plaintiff appealed to the Eleventh Circuit.
The Eleventh Circuit’s Opinion
On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim. In doing so, the Eleventh Circuit made two significant holdings:
First, the Court held that even standing alone, the single use of the N-Word was sufficient to constitute severe harassment. The Court explained:
Southern Home argues that [the co-worker]’s “one-time use” of [the N-Word] was insufficient to establish severity as a matter of law. We strongly disagree. This Court has observed that the use of this word is particularly egregious when directed toward a person in an offensive or humiliating manner.
The Court also held that the other comments alleged by the plaintiffs were similarly sufficiently severe to create a hostile work environment, and consequently, the plaintiff had alleged a legally actionable hostile work environment claim.
Second, the Court disagreed with the district court that the employer did not have knowledge of the alleged harassment. Although it was undisputed that the plaintiff failed to report any harassment until the final day of her employment (and the company disputed whether she had even reported it then), the plaintiff had alleged that the racist slurs were “funny to everybody that worked in the . . . office,” including her supervisor. The Court found that this was sufficient evidence to hold that the supervisor had knowledge of the comments, since she could not have found the comments funny if she did not hear them.
Thus, the Court found that the plaintiff had alleged an actionable hostile work environment claim, and it remanded the case to the district court for trial.
In light of this decision and the increased awareness of improper workplace conduct stemming from the #MeToo movement, there are a number of proactive steps that employers can take to help ensure that their companies have the proper culture to avoid harassment complaints and allegations:
- Review and revise, if necessary, the No Harassment Policy. Most companies have No Harassment Policies (and if your company doesn’t, it should). However, often those policies have not been updated in a number of years. Now is a good time to pull out the policy, review it, and make any necessary updates, including ensuring that there are clear, and multiple, avenues for employees to report harassment.
- Train your managers and supervisors. Your supervisors are your most effective buffer against employment law-related allegations and lawsuits, and they serve as a conduit between the company and its employees. Managers and supervisors should get regular anti-harassment and other employment-law based training, in order to ensure that they will know when harassment is occurring and will know what to do if they spot inappropriate conduct.
- Focus on proper documentation. In conjunction with training your supervisors and managers, documentation issues should be covered. To defend any lawsuit, you must have good documentation. Your supervisors should be trained on correctly documenting all employment actions.
- Promptly investigate and correct any complaints of harassment. Once the company is aware of any improper harassment-related conduct, whether from a direct complaint or an observation in the workplace, the company must take prompt and appropriate action. In doing so, it is important to take all allegations and complaints of harassment in the workplace seriously, immediately perform a thorough and complete investigation of any harassment complaints, and implement swift, appropriate, and proportional remedial action, if necessary, including possible termination or suspension.
Over the past year, workplace harassment issues have increasingly grabbed headlines. While all employers can agree that use of the N-Word is especially egregious, employers must take steps to ensure that such conduct does not occur. More importantly, employers must ensure that they have the policies and procedures in place to prove that such conduct did not occur. This means having an up-to-date No Harassment Policy, and supervisors and managers who are well-trained on anti-harassment and proper investigation methods. By proactively addressing any workplace harassment issues head-on, employers can put themselves in the best possible position to defend any subsequent lawsuit.