A REMINDER FROM THE BENCH: PROVING A HOSTILE WORK ENVIRONMENT CLAIM IS NOT EASY
On August 14, 2009, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, this region’s federal appellate court, kept the bar for proving hostile work environment claims very, very high. “Occasional insults … are not enough,” the court reiterated in Brooks v. CBS Radio, Inc. To prove a hostile work environment claim, the discrimination must be so “severe” or “pervasive” that it permeates the workplace and changes the very nature of the job.
Even being told by a supervisor to read a book containing blatantly racist passages, the court decided, is not enough. In Brooks, the sole African-American account executive at CBS Radio, Inc. quit after being told by his supervisor to read “Dress For Success”. More specifically, Mr. Brooks left as a result of being offended by a number of the book’s shocking passages including the following:
“The two groups who have the most problems with their appearances are black men and Hispanic men. It is unfortunate but true that our society has conditioned us to look upon members of both groups as belonging to the lower classes, and no matter how high a minority individual rises in status or achievement, he is going to have some difficulty being identified by his success rather than his background. But clothing can help.”
Despite the book’s content, the court ruled that its distribution did not create a hostile work environment for Mr. Brooks. There was no evidence Mr. Brook’s supervisor ever read the book. Not only that, the court decided that since there was no hostile work environment, Mr. Brooks had no need to quit so he could not recover monies from CBS Radio for his departure.
Brooks should make people who believe they work in hostile environments think twice before quitting. They are well advised to seek an attorney’s counsel. Together with their attorney, they should step back and reflect about the issue the way a court will: is the discrimination limited to occasional insults, they should ask, or are the insults so severe or pervasive that they infect the very nature of the job? If it’s the latter, before leaving, they should complain about it. They should write out a list of their grievances, date and make a copy of it and hand it to the Human Resources Department (or if there is none, to their supervisors), specifying what precisely the problems are. They should then give their employer the opportunity to rectify the situation. Mr. Brooks did not give his supervisor this chance, and the Third Circuit held that against him.
Brooks notwithstanding, employers should always be vigilant in identifying and eradicating discrimination in the workplace. Diversity should not just be tolerated; it should be welcomed and appreciated. If there is discrimination but it is not severe or pervasive, an employer may win a hostile work environment claim, but the employee may bring other discrimination claims, and the employee will in all likelihood find those easier to prove. Beyond claim prevention, keeping discrimination out of the workplace helps ensure that every employee can be successful. That, in turn, helps a company perform at its peak.