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Even if a supervisor and an employee are the same race, racial epithets can still create a hostile work environment, a federal jury has ruled.
In the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, the jury awarded the plaintiff in the civil case, Brandi Johnson, a black woman, $280,000 in compensatory and punitive damages in a hostile-work-environment lawsuit she filed against her employer, the New York-based employment agency Strive East Harlem and its founder, Robert Carmona (Johnson v. Strive East Harlem Employment Group, et al., no. 1:2012-cv-04460).
In March 2012, Johnson recorded her boss, Carmona, a black man, as he harshly criticized her workplace attire and alleged that she engaged in unprofessional behavior. During his tirade, Carmona used the n-word several times while shouting at her.
The recording was played in open court for the jury. Johnson then testified that after the encounter she sat crying in the restroom for 45 minutes.
“I was offended. I was hurt. I felt degraded. I felt disrespected. I was embarrassed,” she told the court.
During the trial, Carmona defended his use of the word, claiming it had “multiple contexts” in the black and Latino communities and could indicate either anger or love and respect. In his defense, Carmona testified that he might put an arm around a friend and say, “ ‘This is my [n-word] for 30 years.’ That means he’s my boy—I love him or whatever.”
When asked if he had meant to indicate love when he used the epithet to refer to Johnson, Carmon replied that he did.
The court ruling looks particularly bad for Strive, according to sources familiar with the issue, since the agency focuses on helping people with troubled backgrounds find jobs or re-enter the workforce and operates in predominantly black neighborhoods of New York City. Once described by the television news program “60 Minutes” as “part boot camp, part group therapy,” the agency claims to have helped approximately 50,000 people find work since 1984.
In a written statement, Strive officials said they were disappointed in the jury’s decision but were exploring options, including a possible appeal. They also said they plan to offer more training on hostile work environments and appropriate workplace behavior to every employee, including top-level supervisors.
The court ruling could set a precedent as one of the first examples of a hostile environment created when a minority supervisor uses racial epithets to belittle an employee who is a member of the same minority group, according to Jonathan Yarbrough, an attorney in the Asheville, N.C., law office of Constangy, Brooks & Smith.
“I’m not surprised that the jury reached this decision, especially when you look at some of the rulings on how same-sex harassment can create hostile work environments,” Yarbrough said. “In addition, there have been some cases involving minorities harassing other minorities in the workplace. The court’s decision does emphatically support what I always tell my clients: that it is never appropriate to use derogatory terms referring to race or sex in the workplace—no matter who is saying it to whom.”
Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.
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