Workplace anti-harassment training can be summarized with the title of this post. The fact that an employee laughs at an inappropriate joke is not a legal defense to a later claim at harassment. Nor is an employee's failure to object to inappropriate workplace conduct. One employer recently learned this lesson the hard way.
In the case of EEOC v. Holmes & Holmes Industrial, Inc., the EEOC filed suit against a construction company on behalf of several Black employees, alleging hostile work environment claims. To succeed in a case alleging discrimination based on a hostile work environment, a plaintiff must prove that he or she was subject to (1) intentional discrimination, that was (2) severe or pervasive (3) and subjectively offensive to the plaintiff, and (4) that would be objectively offensive to a reasonable person in the plaintiff's position.
In support of its claims against Holmes & Holmes, EEOC asserts that the employee-claimants faced frequent, racially-charged comments from their managers and co-workers. EEOC also contended that supervisors frequently told racial jokes. In response, the employer argued that the employees engaged in similar conduct, frequently using racial slurs and terms.
Following the conclusion of discovery, the EEOC moved for summary judgment--and won! The Court granted partial summary judgment, concluding that the EEOC had proved elements one, two, and four of its claims. The Court's decision noted that the EEOC had brought the "rare case where there is no dispute as to the pervasiveness of the conduct in question. No reasonable jury could find that a reasonable African-American would not be offended by this conduct."
The Court rejected the employer's argument that the employees' participation in the misconduct indicated that it wasn't offensive. Instead, the Court left for the jury the question of whether the employees were willing participants in the harassment.
The employer now finds itself in the unenviable position of going to trial in a case with very bad facts.
The lesson to be learned may be easier said than done but absolutely essential in preventing litigation and limiting liability--inappropriate or off-color jokes do not belong in the workplace, regardless of who you seems to find them funny. Really, there's absolutely nothing funny about being suied for unlawful employment discrimination.