"You don't have a positive attitude!" or "You're not a team player!" or "It was just a joke. Everyone jokes." 

Look, I'm a fan of positive attitudes, teamwork, and jokes, but when it comes to race in the workplace, foul language and treating people poorly because of their skin color or national origin is never, ever, not once appropriate.

Marcus Vaughn, a former Tesla employee, filed a lawsuit in California claiming that while he was officially terminated for not having a positive attitude, the real reason was that he complained about racial harassment and that Tesla never investigated.

Tesla responded, in a statement to The Mercury News:

Several months ago we had already investigated disappointing behavior involving a group of individuals who worked on or near Marcus Vaughn's team. At the time, our investigation identified a number of conflicting accusations and counter-accusations between several African-American and Hispanic individuals, alleging use of racial language, including the 'n-word' and 'w-word,' (a slur against Latino people) towards each other and a threat of violence.

After a thorough investigation, immediate action was taken, which included terminating the employment of three of the individuals.

Vaughn complained that his complaints weren't taken seriously and that he was ultimately punished for not being positive about co-workers who were harassing him. Tesla said there was an investigation (although they didn't specify that it was in response to Vaughn's complaints) and actions were taken.

So, what's going on here? How can a company be sued for not responding to racial harassment incidents when it did respond and did fire people?

Communication Breakdowns

Because we won't see both sides of the story until it plays out in court (which may or may not happen as most employment-related lawsuits are settled out of court), we can speculate. An employee complains, HR and management are already working on it, and so they don't bother to follow up with the employee.

This, as Tesla is finding out, is a serious failure. You always need to circle back with employees who file complaints of any sort of harassment (sexual, racial, or general bullying--even though the latter is not illegal in almost all jurisdictions).

Amazon faced this same problem when Isa Hackett complained that Studio Head Roy Price had sexually harassed her. Did they investigate? Did they punish Price in any way? We don't know, and neither did Hackett, because no one got back to her. As a result, as sexual scandals started to rock Hollywood, Hackett went public and Amazon reacted by terminating Price. If they had responded appropriately to Price's original actions and informed Hackett, they could have avoided the public humiliation.

Zero Tolerance Policy

While the legal standard for what constitutes racial discrimination and harassment is generally more than one slur, sometimes it can be just one n-word uttered by a supervisor. In a 1993 lawsuit, the 7th circuit court declared

Perhaps no single act can more quickly "alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive working environment," than the use of an unambiguously racial epithet such as "ni--er" by a supervisor in the presence of his subordinates.

The use of this particular word and other racial slurs should never be tolerated. While a co-worker's use of foul language is less serious than a supervisor who has hire/fire/disciplinary power's usage, it should still be firmly not allowed.

Ever.

While zero-tolerance policies have a bad reputation in schools where school officials have gone to ridiculous extremes such as punishing students for possessing ibuprofen and suspending a little kid for chewing his Poptart into the shape of a gun, there's never any room for leeway when it comes to racist language in your workplace.

Every accusation should be investigated and when you determine that the accusations are correct, the perpetrators should face punishment up to and including termination.

It's not a joke.

Someone's complaints do not mean he has a bad attitude. 

Was Tesla at Fault Here?

Honestly, at this point, we have no idea. Perhaps Vaughn is mistaken and the problems were dealt with. But, if your business has any employee who uses racial epithets towards other employees, you need to shut that down immediately. 

Published on: Nov 17, 2017