Most employers are aware that a supervisor’s or co-worker’s use of the N-word or similar racial epithets in the workplace can serve as the basis for a claim of racial harassment. What happens, however, when the slurs are spoken in a language in which the intended victim is not fluent? According to a recent decision from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, the plaintiff’s general familiarity with the meaning of the words was enough to create a hostile working environment.
In Johnson v. PRIDE Industries, Inc., the plaintiff was an African-American employee who alleged that a supervisor repeatedly referred to him using the Mexican-Spanish equivalent of the N-word in addition to essentially calling him “boy.” He sued, claiming racial harassment, along with race discrimination involved in his work assignments. The district court dismissed the suit in part because the alleged actions did not rise to the level of a hostile work environment.
On appeal, the Fifth Circuit reversed this decision, remanding the case for jury trial. The court noted that the Spanish phrases used here are obviously offensive, and that the plaintiff understood their meaning even though he did not speak Spanish. In addition, the context in which the phrases were allegedly used was clearly intended to be racially abusive. This decision demonstrates the need to apply the employer’s anti-harassment policy to all offensive conduct, even when it is expressed in a language not familiar to the targets of this behavior.