One of our clients recently received a charge of discrimination filed by a former employee with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The employee, who the employer considered to be African-American, became involved in a series of disputes with his supervisor, who was also African-American. The employee made an internal complaint, claiming that he was being harassed and bullied by the supervisor. The employer investigated the claim but was unable to substantiate the allegations. The complaining employee quit soon thereafter and filed the EEOC charge.
In this charge, the former employee claimed that he had been harassed by his supervisor on the basis of color. He alleged that he is biracial and that his supervisor’s animus was based on his lighter skin color. To the best of the employer’s knowledge, the employee had never identified himself at work as biracial, and his earlier complaint made no mention of this as a reason for the alleged harassment.
In addition to prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, Title VII also bans discriminatory conduct, including harassment, on the basis of color. This means that one employee who is considered by the employer to be the same race as the alleged harassment victim can still engage in illegal conduct. Color discrimination claims are relatively unusual, but they may increase in the future as definitions and perceptions of race become more nuanced.
In our client’s situation, the HR Department conducted interviews and gathered statements from the alleged harasser and victim, as well as other employees who might have witnessed the disagreements. No person interviewed noted that the employee’s color was ever mentioned or was a factor in the disputes between the two workers. We took the position that the disputes arose due to personal conflicts between the two employees, and that color was not a factor in the supervisor’s actions or the company’s response.