Hateful Conduct or Hate Hoax? Important Lessons For Employers

By Robert G. Chadwick, Jr., Managing Member, Seltzer, Chadwick, Soefje & Ladik, PLLC.

According to FBI statistics, hate crimes rose 17% in the U.S. in 2017. Amongst the motivations for hate crimes tracked by the FBI are “race/ethnicity/ancestry bias”, “religious bias”, “sexual orientation bias”, “disability bias” and “gender bias.” 

The FBI does not similarly document the number of false allegations of hate crimes. Recent events, however, have shown that hate hoaxes are real.

On January 29, 2019, actor Jussie Smollett, who is black and gay, claimed to have been attacked in Chicago by two masked men. According to Smollett, the two men yelled racist and homophobic slurs, wrapped a rope around his neck, physically assaulted him and poured a substance over him. The media, politicians and entertainers were quick to condemn the incident as a hate crime.

Paradoxically, what started as a police investigation of a hate crime, quickly became an investigation of a hate hoax. On February 20, 2019, Smollett was formally charged with filing a false police report.

In 2017, the Jackson, Michigan home of Nikki Joly, a prominent member of the local LGBTQ community, was burned to the ground. The FBI initially regarded the incident as a hate crime. A Jackson newspaper named Joly its 2018 Citizen of the Year. After a lengthy investigation, Joly was surprisingly charged in 2018 with first degree arson in burning his own home.

Just as in society as a whole, hateful conduct continues to be an unfortunate reality in the workplace. Indeed, most employers understand their legal obligations to take reasonable measures to prevent such conduct and to take prompt remedial action in response to such conduct. Recent hate hoaxes nevertheless underscore three important lessons in exercising these legal obligations.

Lesson 1: Take All Allegations of Hateful Conduct Seriously

The possibility of a hate hoax does not diminish an employer’s obligations to be vigilant in remediating hateful conduct in the workplace. This duty requires that all explanations be considered, including the explanation that the allegation is truthful.  

A hate hoax thus cannot be the first and certainly not the only explanation embraced by an employer for alleged hateful conduct. The risk of precipitously embracing such an explanation is that it may ultimately prove to be wrong. Any action subsequently taken against the accuser could then result in a discrimination claim. Even worse, the accused may only be emboldened to engage in other misconduct in the future.

Lesson 2:  Look Beyond Mere Appearances

The possibility of a hate hoax does underscore the importance of a thorough investigation of alleged hateful conduct. This duty requires that all explanations be considered, including the explanation that the allegation is untruthful.  

What may appear at first to be a clear case of misconduct by the accused may through further investigation be revealed to be a case of misconduct by the accuser. The risk of a rush to judgment is that the accused may be wrongfully punished, and the accuser may be wrongfully rewarded. Any action taken against the accused could then be the basis of a reverse discrimination claim against the employer. Having been successful in one hoax, the accuser may also be encouraged to undertake other hoaxes in the future.

Lesson 3: Be Objective

The possibility of a claim by the accused or accuser does mandate an objective response by an employer to allegations of hateful conduct. Even as to conflicting accounts, such a claim can simply be based upon alleged favoritism in the employer’s response.

For some employers, such alleged favoritism may lean toward the conclusion of a hoax.   The alleged reasons for such favoritism can include (1) the prospect of punishing or losing the accused employee, especially if he or she is a productive employee, (2) the fear of finding evidence of its own culpability in failing to prevent the misconduct, or (3) previous performance or conduct issues of the accuser employee.

For other employers, such alleged favoritism may lean toward the conclusion that hateful conduct occurred. The alleged reasons for such favoritism can include (1) fear of suit by the accuser, (2) fear of backlash by the accuser’s community, (3) empathy for the accuser’s status, or (4) past discriminatory behavior by the employer.

In responding to allegations of hateful conduct, employer must thus avoid even the appearance that the process is being influenced by favoritism in either direction. The risk of not heeding this advice is a costly discrimination or reverse discrimination claim.

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