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Imus Incident Provides Lessons for HR, Employers

By Kathy Gurchiek   4/16/2007

Employers can learn some lessons from the firing of Don Imus eight days after the radio host made on-air racial and sexual slurs about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, a nationally known employment attorney says.

Initially, NBC News and CBS Radio announced it would suspend their high-profile employee for two weeks beginning April 16, and MSNBC announced it was suspending for two weeks its simulcast of the Imus in the Morning show after Imus called team members “nappy-headed hos” during an April 2007 broadcast.

The ensuing public furor ultimately led CBS to announce April 12 that it had fired Imus.

The lesson for employers, and HR, is not only to have a policy that does not tolerate a hostile work environment but also to apply that policy “from the boardroom to the mailroom,” says employment attorney Dick Block of Dreier LLP in New York.

“One way hostile environments are created is by ageist, sexist or racist language,” Block told HR News.

Discipline, he pointed out, does not necessarily mean employers have to fire someone who behaves this way.

“You want to show that you will not tolerate it and deliver enough discipline that will stop future violations. That’s the problem. [CBS] acted too quickly with a disciplinary decision that rang hollow,” he said, observing that most employers in this instance suspend the employee pending an investigation.

Employers must recognize that their reactions to such incidents send a message to staffers.

“They’re told they have a no-harassment policy, but [is the employer] going to enforce it up and down the line? As an employer, they’re sending a message to their employees whether they’re tolerating racism or not,” Block said.

“Just imagine being an African-American female and you hear this and you’re working at CBS. … [The initial reaction from the organization] would ring so hollow,” he said, noting that few people took seriously Imus’s initial two-week suspension.

“If it was a sales guy or any mid-management or rank-and-file employee, they would have just fired the guy on the spot. It’s just that this guy makes so much money for them. … [But] you’ve got to be consistent” in dealing with employees, Block said.

While there is no set time frame for an employer to take action, “you have to take an adverse action that demonstrates to employees that you take racist comments seriously and you won’t have tolerance for them. You have to take serious action in a reasonable amount of time,” he advised.

Appropriate Actions

A recent example of appropriate action by an employer, according to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Chair Naomi C. Earp, was the immediate firing by Pocono, Pa., radio station WSBG-FM 93.5 of Gary Smith, an on-air personality for 17 years, after he told listeners to call and say, “I’m a nappy-headed ho” as the “Phrase that Pays” following the Imus incident.

In an open letter released April 12, Earp called on employers, as well as the media and entertainment industry, to be intolerant of racist and sexist behavior in the workplace.

Racist and sexist names can and do hurt, Earp said in the letter, and that is one of the reasons why the EEOC recently launched E-RACE(Eradicating Racism And Colorism from Employment), a national campaign to hold businesses accountable for the discriminatory conduct of their officials, managers and employees.

One way to ward off language that devalues other people, Block advises employers, is to do a better job of monitoring racist and sexist language emanating from their e-mail system.

While people may take pains in how they phrase things in a formal memo, for example, they are typically casual in e-mail, he observed.

“They’ll say racist things in e-mail. People fail to realize that e-mail is permanent, that at the touch of a button it can go to 10,000 people and it’s fully discoverable in discrimination cases.”

He advises employers to create a separate e-mail policy that:

  • Sets forth the appropriate use of e-mail.
  • Sets forth what is considered e-mail misuse.
  • Warns employees that any abusive language in an e-mail will subject them to discipline up to discharge.
  • Warns employees that their e-mail will be monitored periodically.

“There were a lot of lessons,” Block said of the Imus incident, “that can be learned here.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kgurchiek@shrm.org.EEOC Vice Chair: Year-Old Initiative Results in ‘Culture Change’, HR News, April 4, 2007

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