In a recent ruling, a federal appellate court clarified that abusive conduct in the workplace need not be “hellish” to violate federal workplace discrimination laws.  The court held that even though harassing conduct may not create a hostile work environment when the harassers are an employee’s co-workers, the exact same harassing conduct may be enough to create a hostile work environment when the alleged harasser is an employee’s supervisor.

In Gates v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, with jurisdiction over federal cases arising in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, reversed a trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the Board of Education over an engineer’s race-based hostile work environment claim.

In the case, Fred Gates, an African-American chief engineer for the Chicago Public Schools, testified that his supervisor used the “N-Word” three times and threatened to write-up his “black ass.”  The trial court concluded that the evidence was too infrequent and insufficiently severe and pervasive to be actionable under workplace discrimination laws.  The trial court reasoned that the discrimination Gates complained of was not “hellish” and so granted summary judgment for the Board of Education.

The appellate court disagreed. The three-judge panel concluded that the trial court erred in two ways. First, it relied on the “hellish” standard, which is not a standard any plaintiff must satisfy. Second, it failed to distinguish cases where the plaintiff’s co-workers show racial hostility and those where the plaintiff’s supervisor engages in the hostile behavior.

The court reasoned, “[w]hile a ‘hellish’ workplace is actionable, plaintiffs’ evidence need not show a descent into the Inferno.”  The court explained that even though discrimination may not seriously affect employees’ psychological well-being, discrimination “can and often will detract from employees’ job performance, discouraging employees from remaining on the job, or keeping them from advancing in their careers.”

The court also stated, “[w]e have repeatedly treated a supervisor’s use of racially toxic language in the workplace as much more serious than a co-worker’s.” The case reminds employers to ensure that its supervisors are trained to avoid insensitive language and behavior.  This behavior often arises when employees are promoted and the colleagues and co-workers with whom they may have enjoyed an informal relationship suddenly become their subordinates.  The Gates case makes clear that abusive or insensitive language might not be enough to constitute harassment when the speaker is a co-worker, but it is a different story when the words come from the mouth of a supervisor.

Smart employers implement internal controls, including internal complaint procedures to encourage employees to come forward with reports of harassment, and preventative training to help make sure all employees and supervisors are on guard against inappropriate behavior and insensitive language.

Contact Jack Vrett with questions on correcting and preventing abusive, insensitive, and toxic behavior in the workplace.