New race-bias issue: the workplace climate
Case of black airline mechanic in Los Angeles follows lead ofsex-harassment law.
Following in the legal footsteps left by sexual-harassment cases, a new kind of lawsuit is emerging to combat racial prejudice on the job.Skip to next paragraph
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As of yet, racial-harassment suits - which focus on workplace climate - are a tiny part of the overall caseload. But they are growing in number and are giving minorities a new recourse that some experts say will help eradicate more overt forms of racism.
In this setting, a case brought by a black airline mechanic against American Airlines is raising questions about how much responsibility corporations bear for the workplace environment created by their employees. The $10.5 million lawsuit alleges that American didn't do enough to halt racial harassment at its Los Angeles maintenance facility.
But more broadly, this case and others like it hint at shifting perceptions of appropriate demeanor. Increasingly, actions that were once accepted, or at least ignored by management and co-workers, are being condemned by the courts.
"There's a growing awareness that things that might have seemed innocuous at one time are no longer acceptable or appropriate," says Jodie Armour, a law professor at the University of Southern California here.
Nooses and dartboards
For his part, Charles Walker says he endured racism at Los Angeles International Airport that was far from innocuous: rope nooses hanging in key parts of the building, a picture of him being used as a dart board, racist graffiti in a restroom.
"He was subjected to harassment and intimidation because of his race," says Ronald Wilson, one of Mr. Walker's lawyers, who is awaiting a trial date for the case. When Walker appealed to superiors to handle the problem, the company did little, conducting only "a shoddy investigation," he says.
American Airlines acknowledges that some of the racist incidents occurred, but it contests the charge that its investigations were slipshod. "We're not disputing the fact that there have been graffiti and offensive objects in the workplace," says Mark Slitt, a spokesman for American. "The issue is what we did about it."
American has a zero-tolerance policy on harassment of any kind, and Mr. Slitt says the company has begun sweeps of its facility here for graffiti.
But he concedes it's difficult to police all 100,000 workers in the firm. "We rely on our managers in our maintenance facility, and we're doing better at telling them what we expect."
Indeed, the novelty of these racial-harassment claims means that some organizations are only now learning what they must do to prevent them, say analysts.
In Boston earlier this year, an African-American police officer said he was being harassed when a colleague laid a noose over his motorcycle seat. After a review by the department, the commissioner called the incident an "ignorant prank," and the guilty officer was charged only with breaking three minor rules. The lawyer for the black police officer, though, said he planned to file federal charges.