Supervisor’s Use of Racial Slurs May Be Challenged


By Shannon L. Kelly April 23, 2019

​A supervisor's use of offensive language in the workplace, even if infrequent, will be considered much more serious than a co-worker's in assessing hostile work environment claims, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.

The plaintiff, a building engineer who is black, sued his employer, the Chicago Board of Education, alleging claims of race and age discrimination, a hostile work environment and retaliation. In support of his hostile work environment claim, the plaintiff alleged that his supervisor made racial comments.

The plaintiff alleged that his supervisor told him in June 2013 that he would not be promoted because of his age and race. The plaintiff further alleged that in late summer of 2013, the supervisor used racial epithets toward him on several occasions. He also said that in November 2013, his supervisor threatened to write his "black ass up." Finally, the plaintiff alleged that in a March 2014 meeting, his supervisor called him the "n-word."

The district court granted the Board of Education's motion for summary judgment regarding the hostile work environment claim, finding that the plaintiff's supervisor could not have exposed him to a racially hostile work environment because the comments were too infrequent. In reaching this decision, the district court noted that over the period of six months or so in which the offensive comments were alleged to have occurred, the plaintiff's supervisor saw him at most three times per month.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Equal Employment Opportunity]

In addition, the district court noted that the plaintiff took multiple approved leaves of absence during the time relevant to his allegations. In fact, between November 2013 and November 2014, the plaintiff worked only 11 days. Accordingly, the district court held that the plaintiff failed to demonstrate that his supervisor's conduct was severe or pervasive enough to constitute a hostile work environment because he did not demonstrate that his work environment was "hellish."

The 7th Circuit rejected the standard used by the district court. The court explained that in demonstrating a hostile work environment, a plaintiff need not demonstrate a hellish environment and reversed summary judgment for the Board of Education.

Gates v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago, 7th Cir., No. 17-3143 (Feb. 20, 2019).

Professional Pointer: This case provides a reminder that the language used by supervisors may create liability on behalf of their employers. As a part of managerial training, employers should educate supervisors on the effect their language may have on employees and the workplace.

Shannon L. Kelly is an attorney with Allen, Norton & Blue P.A., the Worklaw® Network member firm in Winter Park, Fla.


Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Search Jobs
Post a Job

HR Professional Development Programs Right For You

Find SHRM Education Programs Across the U.S. and Virtually

Find SHRM Education Programs Across the U.S. and Virtually

Find a Seminar


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect