Victims of Racially Hostile Work Environments

            Federal and state civil rights laws protect employees from being subjected to a racially hostile work environment. A racially hostile work environment exists when the workplace is permeated with intimidating, threatening, or degrading actions that target an employee because of his or her race.  To have a successful legal claim, the courts require that the hostility be sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment.  That is, the hostile work environment must be serious enough to interfere with the employee’s ability to perform his or her duties.  The most obvious examples would be work settings where racial slurs or other racist conduct occurs on a recurring basis.

            The conduct that creates the racially hostile environment does not necessarily have to be overtly racial. The fact that no racial slurs were used does not necessarily foreclose a claim of racial harassment.  Even where the conduct is not specifically racial in nature, it may still provide the basis of a hostile work environment if it would not have occurred but for the fact that the victim was of a specific race.   

            An example of this would include a situation where supervisors or co-employees engage in conduct that isolates an employee because of his or her race. This could be shown where an African American employee is consistently given more demeaning or menial tasks than white co-workers; or where African American employees are consistently excluded from meetings, or from social events such as luncheons to which white co-workers are regularly invited to attend.  Such a recurring difference in treatment based on race violates federal and state civil rights laws that protect employees against a racially hostile work environment.  In fact, courts have held that an employer may create a racially hostile environment for an employee even where it directs its discriminatory acts or practices at other minority employees, and not just at the plaintiff alone.

             If you have been the victim of a hostile work environment based on your race you may recover money for damages you suffer as a result of such conduct.  Those damages may include recovery for lost wages and emotional distress.  In addition, you may be able to recover punitive damages, meaning that the employer may have to pay you an additional sum of money as punishment for its behavior. But to pursue such claims under federal civil rights laws and some state laws you will first have to file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or your state civil rights agency. Please note there are very strict time frames with which you must comply. Employees who have suffered discrimination in the form of a hostile work environment have a limited amount of time within which to file such a charge and should contact an experienced employment attorney for assistance with what may be a fairly complicated process. 

               If you think you have suffered a racially hostile work environment in the past, or if you are currently experiencing such circumstances, do not delay.  You need to act quickly.  Employment law is a field in which you may want an attorney with a significant amount of related experience.  Research your lawyer to make sure you are satisfied with his or her qualifications.  If you have any questions, or if you want to speak to one of our employment law attorneys, contact us today. 

Author: Michael J. O'Hara, Esq.