Monday, February 27, 2012

6th Circuit: Employee must know about harassment to complain about it

Berryman v. SuperValu Holdings, Inc. (6th Cir. 2/24/12) [pdf] concerns the racial harassment allegations of 11 different employees, spanning 25 years. The allegations included vulgar graffiti, overtly racist comments by coworkers, and racially motivated pranks. Taken together, the allegations painted the picture of a workplace rife with severe, pervasive racially hostile behavior. The problem for these 11 plaintiffs, however, was that none were personally aware of the alleged hostile environments alleged by the other 10. Thus, the Court concluded that it was improper to aggregate their allegations into one over-arching hostile work environment:

In short, a plaintiff does not need to be the target of, or a witness to harassment in order for us to consider that harassment in the totality of the circumstances; but he does need to know about it.

This case does not alter your legal responsibilities to respond and react to a hostile work environment. If you learn that you have employees …

  • Hanging an “effigy of an African American supervisor.”
  • Writing “nigger” on the floor.
  • Displaying drawing of people with “large lips and nappy hair.”
  • Posting “pictures of monkeys” alongside “a picture of police cars chasing O.J. Simpson.”

… you have to do something about it. You have to investigate and you have to take real and effective corrective action to stop it from continuing or happening in the future.

This case, however, illustrates an important and often misunderstood point. The law only protects employees who are exposed to a hostile work environment. It only provides a remedy to employees who know of (first-hand or second-hand) the offensive conduct. It does not provide a remedy to every employee who enjoys the coincidence of being employed in a workplace that happens to be hostile to others.