A little-noticed public sector decision by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission earlier this year may have significant consequences for employers in the U.S. South. In Dawson v. Donahue, an African-American Postal Service employee claimed that he was exposed to a hostile and offensive working environment due to his race, because his supervisors repeatedly delayed in responding to his complaints about co-workers wearing Confederate flag t-shirts to work.
Acting as the adjudicator in this case, the EEOC concluded that symbolism associated with the Confederate flag supported the plaintiff's claim of racial harassment. The EEOC also gave credence to the plaintiff's claims that displays of the flag in the workplace caused him legitimate concerns over his personal safety. The Commission refused to dismiss the claim, saying it merited additional investigation. The EEOC further commented that while an isolated incidence of display of the Confederate flag in the workplace may not rise to the level of a hostile and offensive working environment, the delays in addressing the plaintiff's multiple complaints support a finding of race discrimination.
This case's implications for private sector employers remain unclear. Federal courts reviewing this issue have generally not considered displays of the Confederate flag in the workplace alone to be sufficient to support a claim of hostile environment harassment. However, this decision may signal a new position by the EEOC with regard to its administrative investigation of such claims. Employers may want to consider their approach toward displays of the Confederate flag in the workplace, and take appropriate steps to ensure that the terms of their discrimination and harassment policies are being followed.