As the U.S. becomes more politically divided, employers increasingly are forced to deal with political and social disputes among employees. Last week in Yelling v. St. Vincent’s Health System, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes Georgia) set a high bar for employees to prove that such workplace comments — even when some are racist — create a hostile work environment on the basis of race.
The plaintiff was a Black nurse at an Alabama hospital who alleged that her white co-workers continually made politically and racially disparaging comments regarding former President Barack Obama. She alleged that the co-workers disparaged Black patients and discussed their gun and Confederate flag ownership and “redneck status.” She alleged that this behavior created a hostile and offensive work environment based on race and that she was disciplined and eventually terminated for complaining about these comments.
The Eleventh Circuit affirmed dismissal of the suit on summary judgment. The court noted that many of the comments from the complaint constituted political criticism and were not racial in nature. The racially disparaging comments alleged by the plaintiff were not directed at her and did not rise to the level of a hostile work environment. The judges said that while several comments "plainly were racist," they were "only isolated epithets rather than extreme harassment." The co-workers' comments about their own political positions or status did not reflect on her experience at work.
This decision differs from those of other federal appellate courts that have set a relatively low bar for plaintiffs to allege racial harassment. The Eleventh Circuit determined that general discussion of politics or societal norms, even if offensive to a co-worker with opposing views, does not constitute racial harassment under Title VII. With next year’s elections approaching, employers should think carefully and plan for responding to workplace disputes that may arise. Companies should express their requirement that employees treat each other with respect and courtesy, and that workplace political arguments that violate these standards will not be tolerated.
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