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|HR Headaches: Office Discrimination|
I recently wrote about workplace harassment allegations and due process issues that occur every day, including here in metro Kansas City.
Here’s another example: although the fact that the “N” word is inappropriate and offensive shouldn’t be news to anyone, we still hear of that or similar language being used at work.
I recently had a client call me about an allegation that one of his employees was in the break area and overheard use of the “N” word. This workplace is a very diverse, blue-collar manufacturing setting. I was called to conduct an examination of the allegation and to make a recommendation for the employer’s next steps.
As with any case, this allegation is initially neither fact nor fiction. Until it is examined or investigated, it is simply a statement made by an employee. The allegation becomes truth if it is substantiated or denounced if it cannot be substantiated.
It is imperative that the allegation be investigated. If an employee alleges something has gone wrong or something is of concern and management says, “It’s nothing; go back to work,” management is saying to the employee, “Your opinion or concern doesn’t matter, therefore you don’t matter.” That’s simply not smart and, today, it won’t stand.
I was called in to examine the “N” word allegation. I started with the employee who raised the concern—the person who made the allegation. I got his account of what happened. He gave me the details of who said what and who overheard it beside himself. He also told me how he felt about the matter. The last part is very important. How he feels will drive his behavior going forward. I interviewed the alleged perpetrator and all the alleged witnesses. The long and the short of the investigation was that the allegation was substantiated—it was a fact that the employee used the “N” word and that others, both black and white, were offended.
Now what should be done? The offending employee needs to go. Termination? Maybe. Better is encouraging the person to voluntarily resign, sign a “hold harmless” waiver, expunge his record and offer a clear path to unemployment compensation. The best answer is for everyone to move on.
Employers need to understand that their values are on display with every decision they make. In this case, there are conflicting values at stake: One value is “We believe in second chances. This guy made a mistake, but it was an isolated incident and he deserves a second chance.” The competing value is, “We have a zero tolerance for racial slurs. We won’t tolerate them.”
My recommendation was to extricate this guy, hope he learns from his mistake and send an undeniable message that the employer wants and will work towards an environment that supports racial fairness.
Steve Cohen is president/partner of Labor Management Advisory Group Inc., and HR Solutions: On-Call. He has more than 35 years of specialized experience solving HR problems in companies of all sizes. He recently wrote "Mess Management: Lessons from a Corporate Hit Man." He'll be providing insight on HR topics every month exclusively for KCBCentral.