But an Employer’s Prompt Response to Coworker Use of the N-Word Is a Defense to Liability
In contrast to the last article regarding supervisory misconduct, an employer can avoid liability under Title VII for a hostile work environment created by coworkers – even involving the N-word – by a prompt and effective response to a harassment complaint.
In Paschall v. Tube Processing Corp., two African-American employees asserted hostile work environment claims based on two coworkers’ use of the N-word. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit distinguished between the use of the term by supervisors and coworkers, observing that the supervisor’s use impacts the work environment far more severely than a coworker’s use. Moreover, in this case, the Seventh Circuit found that the employees’ hostile work environment claims failed because the employer took prompt and effective remedial action to address the coworker misconduct. Upon receiving the complaint, the employer considered terminating the employee, but decided to suspend the offending coworker for three days and warned her that she would be terminated if she ever used racially inappropriate language again. The employees never heard her use the word again.
This case emphasizes the need for employers to react promptly to complaints of coworker harassment, and to take appropriate steps to stop any harassment and prevent it from continuing. While terminating an offending employee may be an option, it is not necessarily the only one, as was the case here – the critical point is that the harassment must be stopped.