Can You Be Fired for Objecting to Racially Offensive Material at Work?

African American Woman Angry About Racially Offensive Material at Work

It can be hard to stand up to your employer in the face of racial discrimination. You may worry that filing a complaint with HR will make your work life harder, or even result in termination. But can you legally be fired for objecting to racially offensive material at work? What are your options if you are facing retaliation?

In this blog post, I will review a recent EEOC lawsuit against Lafayette Schools’ Federal Credit Union, now known as Meritus Credit Union, for retaliation. I will explain federal laws protect against employees being fired for objecting to racially offensive material at work. I will discuss options available to employees who want to push for change at the office without putting their jobs at risk.

Bank Manager Fired for Objecting to Racially Offensive Material at Work

Connie Fields-Meaux was the only African-American branch manager at Lafayette Schools' Federal Credit Union (Lafayette), now known as Meritus Credit Union, in Lafayette, Louisiana. During a training at the credit union, Lafayette screened a video showing a caricature of an African-American fast food worker as an example of "how not to provide customer service". It upset her so much she had to excuse herself from the training momentarily.

Later, in speaking with coworkers who also saw the video, she learned that other black employees were upset too. She decided to speak out. She reported the concerns of one of her coworkers, objecting to the racially discriminatory material. The very next day, she was fired without warning or explanation.

Retaliation is Illegal Racial Discrimination Under Federal Law

In many states across the country, at-will employment is the norm. Employers are able to fire employees at any time, with or without notice, for almost any reason. However, employers can't use at-will employment as an excuse for racial discrimination or retaliation.

Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act makes it illegal to fire someone for objecting to racially offensive material at work. The law, like every other federal anti-discrimination statute, protects employees from both the initial racial discrimination, and from retaliation when they make a complaint. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC's) New Orleans Field Office Director, Keith Hill:

“Employers must respond to — and certainly not fire — employees who raise concerns about racially offensive materials.”

What Counts as a Protected Activity Under Anti-Discrimination Laws

Title VII says that when an employee raises a racial discrimination complaint against the company, a supervisor, a coworker, or even a customer the employer has a duty to take reasonable steps to investigate and respond to the complaint. That does not include retaliating against the complaining employee. "Protected activities" include:

  • Filing an internal complaint for racial discrimination
  • Filing an EEOC complaint
  • Filing a racial discrimination lawsuit
  • Serving as a witness to any complaint or lawsuit
  • Talking to a supervisor about racial discrimination or harassment
  • Participating in an in-house investigation of a complaint
  • Refusing to follow orders that would result in racial discrimination
  • Resisting racial harassment

Even if it turns out that the activity does not meet Title VII standards for racial discrimination, employees are still protected as long as they reasonably believe the activity is illegal racial discrimination under federal law.

Is Racially Offensive Material at Work Always Racial Discrimination

Since Title VII only protects employees responding to what they reasonably believe is racial discrimination, you may wonder if that covers all forms of racially offensive material. According to Title VII and the EEOC, race discrimination involves treating an employee (or applicant) worse because he or she is of a specific race or has characteristics associated with race (i.e. skin color, hair texture, facial features). Racial harassment, a form of discrimination, includes racial slurs, offensive remarks, and the use of offensive symbols. For racial harassment or discrimination to be illegal under federal law, it must either:

  • Involve an "adverse employment decision" (i.e. hiring, firing, shift assignment, promotions, or raises)
  • Be so frequent or severe it creates a hostile or offensive work environment

A single off-color joke, or piece of racially offensive material may not always rise to the level of a federal lawsuit. But when employees see a pattern emerging or face a particularly hostile form of harassment, it is probably discrimination.

It is also appropriate to object even to the first piece of racially offensive material at work. This establishes that the conduct is offensive to you and strengthens your case later if your employer fails to address your concerns.

How to Object to Racially Offensive Material at Work if You Fear Retaliation

If you are worried that objecting to racially offensive material at work could get you fired, there are some strategies you can use to protect yourself, and your job:

  • File an anonymous complaint (if company policy allows)
  • Raise your concerns with your union representative (if you have one)
  • Ask to meet privately with a manager or superior
  • Send your complaint in writing (and keep a copy)
  • Talk to an employment discrimination attorney who can help with informal negotiations

Getting an employment discrimination attorney involved early in the process can help protect you from retaliation and make sure you won't be fired for objecting to racially offensive material. A lawyer doesn't automatically mean a lawsuit. Sometimes, your employment attorney can help you negotiate changes at work without filing a formal complaint or going to court. Because your employer knows a lawyer is involved, it will be less likely to dismiss your problem out of hand or retaliate against you for making the complaint.

If you are facing harassment at work, or are afraid to be fired for objecting to racially offensive material, our experienced workplace harassment attorneys at Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, can help you consider your situation, and your options through the EEOC and in court. Contact us today to schedule a free initial consultation and get your case started.

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