EEO -- Racial Harassment – Employer May Have Failed to Respond to Graffiti Threat

Date: September 16, 2003
An African American employee at a printing company in Missouri offered sufficient evidence to submit to a jury the issue of whether his employer knew or should have known about the alleged racially hostile work environment – including a physical threat of death directed specifically at the employee – but failed to take prompt and effective remedial action, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit recently ruled (Reedy v. Quebecor Printing Eagle, Inc., 8th Cir., 6/30/03). When the employee reported a second instance of bathroom graffiti, this time bearing his name below the phrase “kill all niggers,” the employee alleged that the plant manager said “I got it off once, what do you want me to do, tear the wall down?” The graffiti was not removed until after the employee quit five months later. The employer responded adequately to most of the five incidents of harassment alleged by the employee, the court said, but its handling of the death threat was “probably worse than no response at all.” If a claimant shows that an employer has a mixed record with regard to the handling of harassing incidents, the court concluded, then there is a genuine issue of material fact to be decided by a jury whether its remedial actions were prompt and effective. The moral of this story is that employers must be on constant vigil to take prompt (i.e., immediate) action to remedy such conduct. Not only must action be prompt, but the remedy (i.e., interview of employees, distribution of anti-harassment policy, posting of notices, strongly worded work rules, appropriate discipline of offending party, etc.) must be effective. Otherwise, a real threat of lengthy and expensive litigation exists.