By Robert G. Chadwick, Jr, Managing Member, Seltzer Chadwick Soefje & Ladik, PLLC.
The cancellation of the ABC comedy series Roseanne in the wake of allegedly racist tweets by the show’s star, Roseanne Barr, is undoubtedly a hot topic of debate across America. On one side of the debate are those who subscribe to the view ABC did the right thing. On the other side of the debate are those who believe ABC acted precipitously.
So, why should such debates be avoided in the workplace? The simple answer is the debates may be cited as part of a charge or lawsuit alleging race discrimination or harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights of 1964 (“Title VII”), the Civil Rights Act of 1866 or state or local law.
To illustrate this point, consider the debate which continues today regarding the 1995 murder trial of O.J. Simpson. Workplace remarks stemming from such debate are still cited as evidence in cases alleging race discrimination or harassment in employment. In Chattman v. Toho Tanex America, Inc., 686 F.3d 339 (6th Cir. 2012), for example, the claim that a human resources manager was racially biased included a joke as to O.J. Simpson’s innocence. A racially-charged disagreement as to the O.J. Simpson verdict was also at the heart of a race discrimination claim in Campbell v. Hamilton County, 2001 WL 1322785 (6th Cir. Oct. 17, 2001).
Other racially-charged debates have been referenced in race discrimination cases. In David v. Trugreen Partnership, Ltd., 1999 WL 288686 (N.D. Tex. May 5, 1999), it was a debate regarding the trial of police officers who had allegedly beaten Rodney King. In Neal v. Whole Foods Market Company, Inc., 2018 WL 2219362 (E.D.La. May 15, 2018), it was a discussion regarding Bill Cosby’s alleged sexual misconduct.
To be sure, not all remarks made during a racially-charged debate will support a claim of race bias. As many employers already know, however, even frivolous lawsuits cost money to defend.
Especially as to a newsworthy racially-charged debate, such as the cancellation of Roseanne, the urge to take a side can be overwhelming. Where the debate spills into the workplace, however, the risk to an employer is a costly claim or litigation. Employer inaction or acquiescence only increases this risk.
Prudent risk management thus dictates that an employer include debates rooted in race amongst prohibited activities in the workplace. Better yet, such a prohibition should be part of the employer’s discrimination and harassment training program.
Photo credit: Stand-Up Sucks, LLC