Dealing with Racially Charged Remarks in the Workplace: What Florida Employers Need to Know
All Florida employers need to be proactive in identifying and stopping any activities that may be construed as illegal harassment or workplace discrimination. At the same time, employers should understand that not every stray political comment made by a manager–even if it has openly racist or sexist connotations–will subject the company to liability. Nor does it prevent an employer from enforcing written, non-discriminatory employment policies against an employee.
Judge: Director’s Isolated Remarks Did Not Create a “Hostile Work Environment” for African-American Employee
A recent decision from a federal judge in Tampa, Johnson v. Family Practice and Injury Center, Inc., provides a helpful illustration. The plaintiff in this case is an African-American woman who worked for the defendant’s medical practice in St. Petersburg. The plaintiff resigned after the defendant reduced her working hours. The plaintiff alleged this was retaliation, while the defendant maintained it was simply disciplining the plaintiff for tardiness in accordance with its Employee Handbook.
So why did the plaintiff think that she was a victim of retaliation? The plaintiff pointed to two comments made by the defendant’s medical director. The first occurred while the medical director was watching a news report about NFL players who declined to stand for the national anthem in protest of police brutality. The medical director remarked, “If football players can stand in line for welfare checks, they can stand up for the national anthem.”
The second comment also occurred in response to a news report, this time referring to a judge who had issued a ruling unfavorable to President Donald J. Trump. According to the plaintiff, the medical director referred to the judge as a “black b—-h.” It is important to note that neither remark was directed personally at the plaintiff; she merely overheard them.
According to the plaintiff’s lawsuit, the defendant’s subsequent decision to reduce her hours was punishment for complaining about these two statements. Specifically, the plaintiff claimed the defendant violated her civil rights under Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Before the trial court, the employer argued that the plaintiff never engaged in any “protected activity” under Section 1981, and her lawsuit must therefore be dismissed.
The judge agreed with the employer. While the plaintiff may have “subjectively” believed the medical director’s remarks constituted illegal racial discrimination, that belief was not “objectively reasonable,” which is a necessary component of a Section 1981 claim. Assuming both remarks were racist, the judge said they did not “produce an unlawful employment practice by virtue of racial discrimination in the form of a hostile work environment.” This would require proof that the workplace was “permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult.”
The judge said that did not appear to be the case here. Rather, the plaintiff objected to overhearing two isolated remarks that were not directed at her. The plaintiff was not subjected to any “physical threats, humiliating conduct, or even any physical harm” as a result of the medical director’s comments. They may have been “offensive utterances,” but that was not enough to establish racial discrimination.
Seek Legal Advice from a Florida Employment Law Attorney
Employers cannot ignore complaints of workplace racial discrimination. But employers should also never feel like they cannot enforce valid employment policies. If you have questions or concerns about whether your own actions comply with the law, speak with a qualified Florida employment lawyer today.