A Supervisor’s Single Use of the N-Word Can Create a Hostile Work Environment


A supervisor’s sporadic use of offensive words normally is alone not sufficient to create a hostile work environment under Title VII – except for the N-word, as a recent case from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit makes clear. (This is different than co-worker conduct, as discussed in the next article).

In order to create a hostile work environment under Title VII, the conduct at issue must be sufficiently severe or pervasive. As a general matter, courts have found that the single use of a racial epithet does not meet that standard – with the sole exception of the N-word. In Woods v. Cantrell, the Fifth Circuit found that the employee’s allegation that his supervisor called him a “Lazy Monkey A** N*****” in front of his coworkers was enough to support a hostile work environment claim. In arriving at that determination, the Fifth Circuit quoted an opinion from Justice Kavanagh (prior to his appointment to the Supreme Court) that described it as “a term that sums up . . . all the bitter years of insult and struggle in America, [a] pure anathema to African-Americans, [and] probably the most offensive word in English.”

The Fifth Circuit’s decision is not an outlier – a number of its sister circuits (i.e. the First, Second, Fourth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, and D.C.) have come to the same conclusion that the use of the N-word by a supervisor in the presence of subordinates is sufficient to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive working environment for which the employer will be liable.

As a general reminder, however, although employers must be particularly sensitive to the use of the N-word in the workplace, they must always be vigilant about the use of any racially-offensive terms in the workplace.