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Offhand Comments and If They Count as Discrimination

No California employer should make you feel that you do not belong in your workplace because of your race. However, sometimes it is not always clear when a workplace exhibits hostile action towards people due to their racial identity. Sometimes offensive comments are uttered by workers, but they might only be offhand comments and do not reach the level of discrimination or harassment.

A recent court case demonstrates the ambiguity of offhand comments. HR Dive reported that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed in October that racial discrimination had not taken place against a nurse who filed suit against an employer on the basis of a hostile workplace. The nurse had complained that co-workers had made some teasing remarks, including singing “We Are the World” when she attempted to correct a co-worker on a workplace procedure.

The Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of a summary judgment that sided with the employer. The court ruled that the comments by co-workers were offensive. However, they were primarily offhand comments and did not meet the criteria of a hostile work environment. The case was also complicated by the court’s assertion that the employer did not know about the comments and had inadequate time to investigate the matter.

This ruling illustrates the distinction federal law makes between offhand comments and a genuine hostile work environment. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that the law is not broken if co-workers make slights or annoyances. If an incident does occur, it has to be an isolated incident with no persistent occurrence, unless the incident is serious.

For a workplace to be hostile, it must be intimidating to workers or offensive in a way that can be judged by reasonable people. Conduct that is not permitted under law involves a worker suffering slurs, epithets, or being called a name on account of his or her race. Other illegal behavior includes efforts by others to interfere with the work performance of an employee.

The EEOC also cites offensive jokes as an example of illegal workplace conduct. Whether a comment by a worker reaches this status or is just an offhand comment is not always clear. Asking an attorney for advice may assist you to resolve such matters and help you to understand if you have a case.

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