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Words Matter In The Workplace

By Karen Glickstein

Recently, top level executives in the media and tech industries have departed from their positions in the midst of investigations into allegations of workplace conduct that involved comments that were construed to create a hostile environment.  Two cases decided this month, one by a New York court and one by an Illinois court illustrate the potential liability to an employer if a supervisor utters comments that are seemingly race or gender neutral when correcting the behavior of an employee who is not performing his or her duties in a manner consistent with company culture or policies.

In Wooding v. Winthrop University Hospital,  the employer hospital asked the trial court to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a former physician’s assistant, who was the only African-American employee in his department.  The hospital asserted that it discharged the plaintiff for disclosing patient information in violation of HIPAA.  However, the employee alleged that several of his supervisors treated him differently because of his race, including three who disciplined him for engaging in conduct that was "disrespectful" and "overbearing," terms he contended were "code words" for racial discrimination.  The trial court refused to dismiss the lawsuit as to these three supervisors, noting that while the words used by the supervisors "are typically used in an innocent fashion," some words that are facially non-discriminatory "can invoke racist concepts that are already planted in the public conscious." Consequently, a jury could determine that the words, when used toward the plaintiff, were motivated by racial animus. 

A week after the court's decision in Wooding, an Illinois federal court judge reached a similar result in Young v. Control Solutions, LLC.  The employee in Young alleged she was discharged because of her race, while her employer asserted that the discharge was a result of Young's failure to correct performance issues that were documented through a performance improvement process.  Specifically, the employee claimed she had presented evidence of discriminatory intent because the performance improvement plan repeatedly described her as "angry," which she contended was "an attempt to invoke the stereotype of the 'angry black woman.'"   There was no evidence that anyone at the employer ever referred to Young as an "angry black woman," or that the anger was attributed to her race.  However, the trial court allowed the case to proceed to a jury trial, finding that certain words have a long history "as part of a stereotypical depiction of black women," and could be interpreted by a jury as racially motivated.

These decisions serve as a reminder to employers that care should be taken to train all employees regarding proper workplace conduct, how best to document employee behavior when providing discipline,   as well as on issues of implicit bias.  As the EEOC noted in a report issued last year on harassment in the workplace,  simply training employees that an anti-harassment policy exists may not be sufficient to avoid liability.  Words, even facially neutral ones, do matter -- and employers who fail to train their employees as to best practices in a rapidly changing legal environment may find themselves in litigation.