Sometimes people think it’s ok to use a racially offensive term as long as they are a member of that race. For example, many members of the predominantly Black hip-hop culture use the N-word to each other. The problem is that other Blacks find that unacceptable. And in the workplace, it can lead to liability, as one non-profit organization and its Black founder painfully discovered in the recent case of Johnson v. STRIVE.
The employee sued STRIVE, an employment center in East Harlem, and its founder, who was also her supervisor. She claimed that she was the victim of a hostile work environment based on her race and gender, which ultimately ended in her termination. Part of her evidence was a 4-minute recording of her supervisor’s profanity-filled rant at her, which the employee secretly captured on her iPhone. (Smoking gun…) The supervisor called the employee the N-word eight times during his rant. Part of his rant included the following: “And I’m not saying the term n—– as derogatory; sometimes it’s good to know when to act like a n—–, but y’all [the employee and another former employee] act like n—— all the time . . . both of you very bright, but both y’all act like n—— at inappropriate times.”
At trial, the supervisor tried to defend his use of the n-word as part of a “tough-love” culture, and said that he was only trying to help the employee (apparently to learn when to act like an N-word and when not to do so?). The jury didn’t buy it. Like the employee, the jury found his use of the word to be racially harassing – even if he is Black. And it awarded the employee $280,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.
Lesson for employers – don’t assume that racial epithets are ok just because the person making them is of that race. Really, racial epithets have no place in the workplace. Period.