Managers in our programs sometimes ask, “If African-American employees call their African-American friends at work ‘nigga,’ are they welcoming someone else using the N-word?” A new state Supreme Court case says NO.
In the case, the white boss of an African-American employee refused to provide him all of the training he needed, allegedly because he was afraid the employee would replace him. When the employee asked for help, the boss frequently scolded him, called him “stupid,” said what he was doing was “bullshit,” and called him a “nigger.” The boss had also used that word with another African-American employee, and used racial slurs for Latino employees.
The employee complained to the owner of the company several times, and though the owner talked to the manager, he never gave him a written warning and did not tell him he could be terminated.
When the employee sued, the manager said that since the African-American employee used the word “nigga” with another African-American, he welcomed use of the racial slur.
The court said, “This argument is nonsensical and ignores years of cultural history. … There is a clear difference.” The word used by the employee was a “diminutive” “term of endearment” and a “non-offensive greeting with fellow African Americans.”
The boss’s use of the slur, the court said, “automatically separates the person addressed from every non-black person; this is discrimination per se.” The case is KB Enterprises, LLC v. Montana Human Rights Commission.
But there is more to the issue than this one case. Companies that want to create respectful workplaces can ban both of these words by everyone. In a New Jersey case handed down in May 2019, a black/Puerto Rican corrections officer who called a black colleague “nigga” or “nigger” was properly suspended for violating the anti-harassment policy. The trial judge rejected the efforts to “minimize the significance of the incident,” explaining that the “N” word “has been used for generations to degrade,” and is “so vile that [its use] cannot be countenanced.” In re Bermudez, No. A-0590-17T1, 2019 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1006 (App. Div. May 2, 2019)
In a 2017 decision upholding discipline of an African-American who used “nigger” at work, the New Jersey Civil Service Commission rejected her argument that black people could use the word, but others could not. The employer argued that it “is a derogatory race-based comment and as such, its usage in the workplace violates the state policy, regardless of the identity of the person who utters it.” The employer’s EEO officer also asserted that “many African-Americans do not consider the usage of the word by other African-Americans to be acceptable.”
And in New York City, there was a 2013 jury verdict of $280K in a federal case where a black/Puerto Rican supervisor used “nigger” towards a black subordinate, claiming that it was “tough love.” The supervisor was held personally liable for $25K in punitive damages. Johnson v. Strive E. Harlem Emp’t Grp., 990 F. Supp. 2d 435 (S.D.N.Y. 2014). An additional $173K in attorneys’ fees and costs were also awarded. Johnson v. Strive E. Harlem Emp’t Grp., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10342 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 28, 2014)
What this means to you: It’s not just the N-word. We’ve heard managers say that women must welcome being called “girl” or “bitch” if they use those words, or LGBTQ+ workers don’t mind words they themselves use with each other. But everything is different when it comes from managers (even managers in those same groups). Even if your words aren’t considered harassment, they can be used to prove your intent to discriminate if you have to take any adverse action against an employee. That’s why the best companies require all employees to treat each other with respect.
Information here is correct at the time it is posted. Case decisions cited here may be reversed. Please do not rely on this information without consulting an attorney first.