We each go through our own little versions of hell, when we’re combating racism on the job. While there may be some similarities with the things we go through (e.g., being isolated from staff, being ignored, being called by racial epithets, etc.), there are so many nuances to our experiences that no two hostile work environments are really the same.
Black employees need to really become familiar with the term a “hostile work environment.” Far too often, I think we brush off a lot of the offensive behavior at work because we may not have been called a ni**er or we may not have been subjected to a noose hanging from a light fixture. But, if we are dealing with behavior that is persistent and pervasive, that makes it hard for us to do our jobs, we may need to have someone look into whether or not Federal statutes are being violated in regard to our treatment.
A hostile work environment falls under harassment in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Here’s what the EEOC has to say about it:
Harassment must be analyzed on a case-by-case basis, by looking at all the circumstances and the context. Relevant factors in evaluating whether racial harassment creates a sufficiently hostile work environment may include any of the following (no single factor is determinative):
--The frequency of the discriminatory conduct;
--The severity of the conduct;
--Whether the conduct was physically threatening or humiliating;
--Whether it unreasonably interfered with the employee’s work performance; and
--The context in which the harassment occurred, as well as any other relevant factor.
The more severe the harassment, the less pervasive it needs to be, and vice versa. Accordingly, unless the harassment is quite severe, a single incident or isolated incidents of offensive racial conduct or remarks generally do not create an abusive working environment. But a single, extremely serious incident of harassment may be sufficient to constitute a Title VII violation, especially if the harassment is physical.
Examples of the types of single incidents that can create a hostile work environment based on race include: an actual or depicted noose or burning cross (or any other manifestation of an actual or threatened racially motivated physical assault), a favorable reference to the Ku Klux Klan, an unambiguous racial epithet such as the “N-word,” and a racial comparison to an animal.
Racial comments or other acts that are not sufficiently severe standing alone may become actionable when repeated, although there is no threshold magic number of harassing incidents giving rise to liability. Moreover, investigators must be sensitive to the possibility that comments, acts, or symbols that might seem benign to persons of the harasser’s race could nevertheless create a hostile work environment for a reasonable person in the victim’s position.
Here are a couple of examples of a hostile work environment that show the differences in abuse. It includes everything from being called a ni**er to being required to work longer hours based on stereotypes, to being subjected to racially coded remarks, being set up for failure, etc.:
Reedy, 333 F.3d at 908-09: [The] working environment of Plaintiff, Black, was so objectively abusive as to alter the conditions of his employment where, over a seven-month period coworkers called him and other Black employees “n------” on numerous occasions and threatened them with violence, and the company allowed racial slurs, pictures, and threats to linger in the men’s bathroom.
Aman, 85 F.3d at 1078-84: [A] reasonable jury could find two Black employees were subjected to racially hostile environment where managers and coworkers repeatedly made coded racial remarks, and managers required them to do menial tasks outside their job description, yelled at them, and made their jobs more difficult by withholding necessary information, refusing to deal with them, and falsely accusing them of misconduct.
Ross v. Douglas County, 234 F.3d 391, 393 & 395-97 (8th Cir. 2000): affirming verdict in favor of Black employee whose Black supervisor subjected him to racially derogatory slurs, such as the “N-word” and “black boy,” and referred to the employee’s wife, who was White, as “whitey”: “Such comments were demeaning to Ross. They could have been made to please Johnson’s white superior or they may have been intended to create a negative and distressing environment for Ross. Whatever the motive, we deem such conduct discriminatory.”
Kang v. U. Lim America, 296 F.3d 810, 817 (9th Cir. 2002): [A] hostile work environment could be found where Korean supervisor with stereotypical beliefs about the superiority of Korean workers held Korean Plaintiff to higher standards, required him to work harder for longer hours, and subjected Plaintiff to verbal and physical abuse when he failed to live up to supervisor’s expectations.
Remember, you don’t have to be called the n-word or be threatened with the KKK or nooses in order to prove a hostile work environment. The totality of your abuse will tell the story regarding whether or not you were subjected to an environment that made it difficult or impossible to successfully do your job.
This is why you must document everything happening to you. If you are being ignored (e.g., phone calls not returned, emails not returned, ignored when going to someone’s office to speak to them, etc.), document this behavior because you will need evidence of this later to prove a hostile environment.
Going by this example, you could send an email to this person (not a voicemail) stating that you’ve been leaving email and voice messages for them, but have not received an answer. Or, stating that you came to see them, spoke to them, they looked at you, and went back to their work without responding to you. Ask if you can discuss any issues to create a more positive work experience and clarify any issues. If this email is ignored, forward a copy to your supervisor and ask them to address the problem. If this is ignored, you can contact HR for assistance.
If the person ignoring you is your boss, you can follow the same steps. If they ignore you, you can go straight to that supervisor’s supervisor and/or to HR.
These are tips just for the example provided about being ignored. You get the point. Document everything!! If you’ve been called a name, you want to do the same thing. Get the racial epithet in writing. Immediately shoot off an email stating the behavior is unacceptable, hostile, and offensive. Start plugging in those words!! HOSTILE WORK ENVIRONMENT!! OFFENSIVE WORK ENVIRONMENT!!