Skip to Main Content

Keeping you informed

Reference to Monkeys in Manager's Book Not Evidence of Racially Offensive Environment

    Client Alerts
  • July 08, 2011

Hostile environment harassment claims often hinge on the difference between subjective and objective interpretations of comments made in the workplace. Subjectively, a plaintiff may have been genuinely offended by remarks or behavior he or she viewed as hostile toward a protected category. However, the legal standard for determining a hostile and offensive working environment is objective. Would a reasonable person interpret the situation to create a hostile environment?

This distinction was made clear last month in a Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decision. In Ellis v. CCA of Tenn. LLC, the plaintiffs were African-American nurses who alleged that their white supervisor allowed and contributed toward a hostile working environment based on race. Among several widely dispersed and questionable instances of alleged harassment, the plaintiffs alleged that their supervisor kept in his office an excerpt from a book called The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey. The plaintiffs claimed that references in the book to employees as monkeys contributed to a racially offensive working environment.

The Seventh Circuit had little trouble affirming summary judgment for the employer. While the plaintiffs may have been subjectively offended by the excerpt, no reasonable person would view a metaphor used in a management book in the possession of a supervisor as racist. The fact that certain white employees may have interpreted the book as such does not establish a hostile environment.

Obviously, managers should avoid comments and behavior that could be viewed as playing into stereotypes. However, this decision makes clear that subjective interpretations of otherwise neutral circumstances will not be adequate evidence of a hostile working environment regardless of the plaintiffs' view of events.