The Power of Words in the Workplace

A workplace discrimination riddle: How many offensive remarks does it take to establish a hostile work environment?

According to a recent ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, the answer is “one.” The court held that a single word or incident, if severe enough, can create an actionable hostile work environment claim.

In Castleberry, et. al. v. STI Group, et al., two African-American pipeline workers filed suit alleging harassment, discrimination, and retaliation while working on a fence-removal project during which their supervisor threatened to fire them if they had “n***r-rigged” the fence. Coworkers confirmed the slur, and the employees reported it to a superior. Two weeks later, they were fired without explanation, then briefly rehired, only to be fired again due to lack of work.

The defendants moved to dismiss the suit, stating that a single, isolated incident could not create a hostile work environment. The trial court agreed and dismissed the harassment claim, finding that the incident did not indicate that the harassment was “pervasive and regular.” The ruling was based on a case under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which stated that to establish a hostile work environment, the employee must prove that (1) the employee suffered intentional discrimination because of race; (2) the discrimination was severe or pervasive; (3) the discrimination detrimentally affected the plaintiff; (4) the discrimination would detrimentally affect a reasonable person in like circumstances; and (5) the employer is responsible.

The employees appealed the trial court decision, asserting that the court applied the wrong legal standard when it required that the harassment be “pervasive and regular.” The Third Circuit agreed, based on a Supreme Court precedent that the correct standard is “severe or pervasive.” Although the employer did not believe the single use of the n-word to be “severe,” the court pointed out that the supervisor threatened to terminate the employees in the same breath as the racial slur, making the incident severe enough to support a hostile work environment claim.

This decision reinforces the need for employers to maintain strong antidiscrimination policies, encourage employees to report discrimination, and investigate and remedy every discriminatory remark or conduct, even if a single incident. We are happy to help with your review of your policies to ensure compliance with Title VII.

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