Dealing with Racism at the Workplace | DCR Workforce Blog

Dealing with Racism at the Workplace

No to racismRacism in the workplace is back in the headlines. No, we’re not just referring to the Los Angeles Clippers. On April 17, 2014, a suit was filed against a California business by a former employee, alleging racial discrimination which went beyond snide comments to leaving nooses fashioned out of ropes on his desk. The company, which fired him soon after he filed the suit, alleged discrepancies in his timecards and other issues. This news has left many people wondering how something like this could happen, in our time and age. Even if the worker’s performance was not up to standards, such actions are a denial of all the efforts at change, and of course, our legal system.

For most of us, a workplace is a home away from home; a place where we spend a major part of our waking hours on a work day. The law forbids anyone from discriminating against a person, belonging to a certain race, based on physical features like hair or skin color.. No aspect of a person’s employment, like hiring, firing, pay scale, promotion, layoff, training, benefits or any other condition may be determined by a person’s race – either positively or negatively. In addition, employers must provide a discrimination-free work environment through a zero tolerance policy toward racist comments or gibes.

Familiarity has a tendency to lower the barriers to human interaction, and make it possible for some people to breach the layers of formality to get close to others at work. For some people this would also be a license to indulge in playful, though offensive, banter. Which is why the law may be lenient towards simple teasing, offhand or isolated comments – but is against any behavior which creates a hostile or offensive environment at work, or when an adverse employment decision is made, based upon a person’s race.

Whether the harasser is a co-worker or supervisor, the employer is also held accountable when such incidents take place. The law has made it very clear that discrimination is unacceptable, even if it was practiced by a person belonging to the ‘same race’.

Let us look at what constitutes racial harassment:

  • Applicants and employees of any race are protected, as well as those who can lay claim to origins traceable to 2 races or even more. The protection also applies to anyone who is associated with persons of a different race, such as a friend, partner or relative.
  • Racial slurs, jokes, comments, cartoons, drawings, symbols, gestures and other physical or verbal conduct based on an individual’s race is considered to be harassment, even if the harasser belongs to the same race.
  • Refusing to hire anyone because they belong to a specific race is also illegal. When a client instructs a staffing company to not send them any candidates of a particular race, the liability would also extend to the staffing company if it agrees to obey the customer’s wishes.
  • Employers may ask workers/applicants for information about their race, as a part of their efforts at affirmative action – but not to discriminate against them in hiring. Employees and candidates have the right to refuse to provide that information.
  • No employer can ask a worker to only work with his or her own race, or a territory which predominantly houses people of that race.
  • No employer may punish or penalize a worker who reports discriminatory treatment at the workplace, either to the management, some outsiders or authorities like the EEOC. Such retaliatory measures will not be permitted even if the charge of discrimination is not proved.

The high profile case of the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers is bound to establish new precedents in the area of workforce discrimination too. In the digital age, there are no secrets. What actions can be taken when there are no specific complaints by employees or other workers, but racist remarks are uncovered? How does this alter the notion of a “hostile work environment”? Can a company owner be forced to terminate his ownership in a business?

In an age when employers are working hard to find and retain the talent they require, it is necessary to inculcate a discipline among all employees, including business owners and executives, to maintain an atmosphere free of discrimination and harassment, devoid of fear or favor.

The content on this blog is for informational purposes only and cannot be construed as specific legal advice or as a substitute for competent legal advice. They reflect the opinions of DCR Workforce and may not reflect the opinions of any individual attorney. Do contact an attorney for advice specific to your issue or problem.
Lalita is a people/project manager with extensive experience in operations, HCM and training and development across industries like banking, education, business consulting, BPO and information technology. She believes in a dynamic approach to life and learning as change is the only constant.