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Is Saying the N-Word at Work Illegal?

By Aditi Mukherji, JD | Last updated on

Sorry Chris Rock and Dave Chapelle, but a federal court in New York found a manager's use of the N-word among blacks in the workplace was sufficiently hostile and discriminatory to warrant damages. The jury in this case awarded $250,000 in compensatory damages to a black employment agency worker, Brandi Johnson, after being subject to an N-word-full tirade by her black boss, Rob Carmona.

But how does the N-word create a hostile work environment?

Liability for Hostile Work Environment

A boss can be sued for a hostile work environment when his or her harassment -- including unwelcome comments or conduct based on sex, race, age, disability, or other legally protected characteristics -- unreasonably interferes with an employee's work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.

Typical conduct that can create a hostile work environment includes offensive jokes, slurs, touching, threats, ridicule and insults.

General rudeness isn't enough to sue for a hostile work environment. The conduct must be severe and/or pervasive enough that a reasonable person would consider intimidating or abusive such that it impacts his or her desire or ability to work.

Here, the N-word-laced rant was about inappropriate workplace attire and unprofessional behavior, reports The Associated Press. After the remarks, the employee fled to the bathroom and cried for 45 minutes.

Generally, one single instance cannot trigger liability for a hostile work environment. In this case, the jury took into account Johnson's previously disregarded complaints about Carmona's verbal abuse, reports the AP.

N-Word as Objectively Offensive

To trigger liability for a hostile work environment, the conduct must be objectively offensive. Here, Carmona boss argued that the N-word has "multiple contexts" in the black and Latino communities, sometimes indicating anger, sometimes love.

Unfortunately for Carmona, his aggressive N-word-laced tough love was objectively offensive enough to be considered discriminatory and abusive. Carmona was Johnson's superior and directly addressed her with a racial slur that created a work environment that was directly repugnant to anti-discrimination laws and policies.

For that reason, Johnson was able to successfully sue her manager for injuries.

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