Workplace Rights

Weekly (2/21/22)

Topic of the Week  Racial Harassment in the Workplace

1 in 4 Black workers have experienced racial harassment or discrimination while on the job.

Under federal law, it is illegal to harass a person in any aspect of employment because of their race or color. Harassment can include racial slurs, offensive or derogatory remarks about a person’s race or color, or the display of racially-offensive symbols.

Racial harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile work environment or results in an adverse employment decision, such as the victim of the harassment being fired or demoted. Learn how to identify racial harassment here.

Which federal law(s) cover racial harassment?

Although many federal and state laws do not specifically define race harassment or make it illegal, courts have found that racial harassment is a form of race discrimination which violates the laws against race discrimination in the workplace.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a federal law that protects individuals from discrimination based on race. This law makes it illegal for an employer to discriminate against individuals because of their race in hiring, firing, and other terms and conditions of employment, such as promotions, raises, and other job opportunities.

The laws of most states also make it illegal to discriminate based on race, and some states specifically make racial harassment against the law. Some states may also have different grounds under which you can bring a harassment suit, such as assault and battery, or intentional infliction of emotional distress. 

What types of conduct are considered racial harassment?

Many kinds of conduct that are of a racial nature may be racial harassment, if the behavior is unwelcome and if it is severe or pervasive. However, courts have resisted adopting what they consider a workplace "code of conduct" or list of behavior that is automatically considered to be racial harassment. As a result, if the conduct is not unwelcome or not severe or pervasive, courts will not necessarily consider each type of conduct listed below to be racial harassment.

Additionally, petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of being unlawful.

Some examples of conduct that may be racial harassment include:

  • Verbal or written conduct: Jokes; innuendos; slurs; name-calling; comments about clothing, personal behavior, or your body; racial or race-based jokes; telling rumors about your personal life; threatening you; organized hate activity directed at employees
  • Physical conduct: Rape or assault; impeding or blocking your movement; inappropriate touching of your body or clothing;
  • Nonverbal conduct: Derogatory gestures or facial expressions of a racial nature; following or stalking you; malicious interference with work performance.
  • Visual displays: Posters, drawings, pictures, screensavers or e-mails of a racial nature; epithets scrawled on the employer's property; hangman's nooses, Nazi swastikas, or other items understood to have racial significance

Thought of the Week

"To the degree companies are serious about trying to diversify the labor pool in ways that allow people to be successful — this is not just about hiring, but about retention and getting the most out of employees that you ca. HR managers should track these things, look at them, and then be open to surprising aspects of how referrals can help, especially underrepresented groups"

–Adina Sterling | Stanford Graduate School of Business

Weekly Comic by Jerry King

Weekly Comic by Jerry King

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    Did you know:

    • 1 in 4 Black and Hispanic workers report recent discrimination at work
    • Discrimination reports even higher among young Black employees
    • 3 in 4 Black workers say the discrimination they felt was race-based

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