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Racist Comments at Work: What Can Employers Do?

By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on

When an employee or supervisor makes racist comments in the workplace, a small business can face costly legal consequences. What can employers and business owners do?

The NBA today made a decisive move: suspending Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life after an investigation found that he'd made racist comments -- one of which targeted Hall of Famer Magic Johnson, Reuters reports.

What should your business do when addressing racist comments in the workplace?

Avoiding Lawsuits by Workers, Customers

Although no business owner should suffer racism in any form, business owners are also vulnerable to suits by their employees when racist comments go unpunished by management.

Racist comments can easily create a hostile work environment in a small business, leaving the employer open to potential lawsuits for racial discrimination under federal and state laws.

There's no magic number as to how much racist rhetoric or how many comments can create a winning hostile work environment suit, but some federal courts have found that even a single racial slur can make a business liable for discrimination.

And don't forget that customers can also sue your company for racial comments in the workplace. Even though your company's policy may strictly forbid the use of slurs and offensive rhetoric, a customer may sue a business owner for racial comments made by an employee.

Discipline for Racist Comments

Business owners can shield themselves from this kind of litigation by ensuring that there is a disciplinary process in place to deal with allegations of racism in the workplace.

In crafting your discipline policy, make sure to:

  • Create an effective complaint process. You may be able to avoid a lawsuit if your business creates an in-house process for fielding and responding to complaints of racial discrimination -- more than just a complaint box.
  • Document, document, document. Memorialize and document everything in the discipline process: the initial complaint, meetings with employees, and any discipline (including the reasoning for the discipline).
  • Have a written suspension policy in place. You may need time to investigate serious claims of racism, so it may be necessary to suspend an involved employee until that investigation is complete.
  • Be prepared to fire the offensive worker. The end of the discipline road may lead to terminating an employee, so be prepared to do it properly.

If you need help creating a policy to deal with racist comments in the workplace, or advice on how to proceed with an employee, an experienced employment law attorney is just a click away.

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