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Racial slurs in foreign language can create hostile environment

A recent federal appeals court ruling highlights the importance of paying attention to racial slurs in the workplace, including when they are made in a foreign language. That is especially true, the court said, when the slurs are part of a broader picture of misconduct.

The court issued the ruling in a case out of Texas. While the ruling doesn’t apply in New England, it offers important guidance for any employer.

In the case, a Hispanic supervisor used the Spanish term “mayate,” which is the equivalent of the N-word, to label a Black employee in front of that employee. The supervisor also used the term when talking with other Hispanic employees about Black employees.

In addition, the Black employee claimed that the supervisor didn’t address him by name and instead called him “mijo” (son) or “manos” (hands).

The supervisor also allegedly assigned the Black employee inferior tasks to other workers, failed to move his applications for promotions forward, and hid materials he needed to complete his assignments.

The employee complained to both his manager and HR consistently. But the company found that no harassment occurred, and the same conduct continued. The employee ultimately resigned.

The appeals court concluded that the employee had sufficiently alleged a hostile work environment.

The court said that the N-word is “the most noxious racial epithet in the contemporary American lexicon.” In some other jurisdictions, courts have decided that even limited use of the N-word is sufficiently severe to create a hostile environment.

In this case, the court said that the full picture of the conduct, with the inclusion of the racial slurs in Spanish, could be found by a jury to create a hostile environment. It said that while the use of terms like “mijo” and “manos” might not be considered harassment on their own, they could be offensive due to the entire set of conduct. The court also cited the supervisor’s actions in not moving the employee’s promotion applications forward and providing of lesser work assignments.

In this case, the Black employee had limited knowledge of Spanish, but still knew that the term “mayate” was especially disparaging. Even if he didn’t know the meaning of the word, the other Hispanic employees clearly knew the meaning.

This example brings to light the importance of employers and their HR teams paying close attention to all language in the workplace and taking action to stop any racial slurs.

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