Employer Solutions to Polarizing Hate-Based Incidents

by Dec 14, 2016Advice and How To's, Talent, Trends

Suzanne Benoit

LCSW, SPHR, Author, Speaker, and Consultant


General complaints about hate speech and other forms of intimidation, vandalizing and even violence have spiked since the US election in early November 2016. A few examples follow:

A recurring theme of the 2016 US Presidential election has been the polarization of views on the right and left of the political continuum. The examples noted above are not specifically about the workplace. Not much has been written about internal (employee on employee) conflict. However, there have been a few well-publicized incidents of harassment toward or by an employee at work. In one, a white Trump supporter was videotaped making a scene directing hate speech toward an African-American Starbucks employee in Miami.

A Victoria’s Secret employee was recently accused of racial profiling an African American woman, accusing her of theft and making an embarrassing public scene to eject her from the store. In a similar but politically different scene, a fast food employee was fired for refusing to serve a police officer. This type of incident requires swift assessment by the employer and an evaluation of whether the exercise of an employee’s personal view conflicts with their stated values or is in violation of a customer’s rights.

Workplace Culture

There are reasons to take seriously disrespectful talk that does not rise to the level of hate speech within the American workplace. It is well established that a positive and healthy workplace culture is associated with greater company success. To this end, it behooves leadership to describe and implement guidelines to keep employee peer relations and those between the employer and employee as respectful and free of abuse as possible. Much information about how to do this is available from articles and blog posts. Employees who feel heard and respected are more apt to treat customers with respect and to remain in their jobs. Conversely, when employees decide to leave their jobs, most describe one final incident in which disrespectful treatment by a supervisor pushes them to the decision. 

Toxic Employees and Bullies

Speaking specifically about disrespectful talk in the workplace, employers have been dealing with toxic employees and bullies for years. These undesirable workers use manipulation to target employees and to encourage others to ostracize those whom they don’t like. These workers are difficult for supervisors to re-direct or change so direct victims and those who witness these negative tactics lose faith in the supervisors and leadership in general. This can corrupt corporate culture and result in unwanted turnover. On a fundamental level, this behavior is morally wrong

Toxic employees and bullies can also cost companies in lost productivity. Important to an employer is that this kind of disruptive social activity directs employee attention away from company goals. However, when a bully or toxic employee targets the wrong workplace victim it can create a more overt legal risk. We are talking about singling out employees because of their gender, race, religion, age, disability or ethnic group. In some states, LGBT employees are also protected from discrimination in the workplace. Bullying that is targeted to any member or perceived member of these groups can lead to potential Human Rights claims.

Workplace Harassments and Lawsuits

Most wronged employees never make a formal complaint. They lick their wounds, get another job and try to evaluate the next workplace for potential problems. Mounting a legal challenge against a company depends upon the employee’s determination; knowledge of their rights; and ability to retain an attorney with the skill to bring a successful case. The more overt the discrimination, the easier it is for an employee to find willing counsel and to prevail. By prevailing, I mean either pry a settlement from the employer or win in a courtroom or mediation process.

If employees are harassed while they are on the job, employers have an obligation to protect them from hate-based harassment. It doesn’t matter if it’s a boss, coworker, the package delivery person or a repair person coming into the workplace. Hate-based harassment by its nature involves an employee’s protected class status. Federal statutes protect employees from this kind of abuse.

In the case of an employee who harasses a member of the public or customer, there is a risk of the customer mounting a legal claim of discrimination but much more damage comes from cellphone videos that capture the ugly scene and make the news rounds for days afterwards.

Deliberate Investigation

When a hate-based incident occurs in the workplace, a calm, studied and consistent company approach should commence. It is important not to make assumptions; to determine what happened; who was targeted and if hate speech or other actions toward statutory protected class is likely to have happened. Was the offending behavior merely inconsistent with the company’s desired culture or was it in violation of anti-discrimination statutes. Next, appropriate actions should be taken which hold employees accountable for their behavior and decreases the likelihood of repeat incidents. Consequences might take the form of a formal warning or in serious cases, dismissal. The notoriety of these cases today can cause a media firestorm which can derail a careful employer deliberation and result in impulsive decisions.

Progressive Companies Go Further

Many companies go beyond simply responding to specific statutory discrimination. They create strategic plans which advocate for the protection of human rights both at work and in general. The 2016 passage of North Carolina HB2 provides a good example of such strategies. A strong corporate backlash against the state was evidenced by canceled events, conferences and commerce.  

Corporations have various reasons for taking a strong position against what they see as a general infringement on human rights. The degree of effort and expense a company is willing to invest in general causes is often a matter of conscience which starts at the top.

Some company leaders believe in the cause of human rights protection and advocate for this position in their local community or nationally. Some want to make sure all their employees have a safe place to live and work – many of them have overt recruitment strategies to draw more diversity into their workforce. Corporations sometimes cite diversity recruiting as a reason to mobilize when a state or municipality enacts statutes restricting the rights of protected classes.

A recent example of corporate power and advocacy for human rights was when North Carolina passed HB2 requiring people to use the restroom consistent with the gender on their birth certificate. This was a measure based upon fear of transgender individuals. It may have been influenced by emerging litigation in certain states preventing schools from requiring transgender students to use special or faculty restrooms. Mounting public sentiment urges schools to allow students to use the restroom consistent with their gender identity. Some conservative states object to this idea and one result was NC HB2. A number of large, national organizations reacted by pulling conferences and other events from the state as protest. Esquire published a list of corporations and entertainers who have boycotted North Carolina as a result.

HR’s Role

In a narrow sense, HR should be working to prevent any unlawful behavior within their company. But a more progressive stance requires that they support all “people” aspects of meeting company long term goals. This involves going further to influence the quality of the overall work environment and working to promote the company’s desired culture. There is a strong, specific role to play in both preventing hate-based incidents and in crafting a careful response when events do occur. Most HR professionals are responsible for advising leadership on these matters and designing investigations that lead to legal solutions based upon sound business principles.


HR professionals who are asked to help prevent or investigate workplace conflicts can be guided by some of the following principles:

  • Most employees want to do well and get along with others
  • Employee passion can be a good thing but can also lead to heated debates.
  • HR should remain politically neutral but always model company principles regarding positive, respectful relationship building.
  • Certain conversational behavior is not productive and should be redirected, such as: bullying, shouting, talking over others, lying, etc.
  • Hate speech aimed at a protected class of employees or the general public has no place at work. Though hate speech can be interpreted differently, the standard is generally in the “eye of the beholder” to whom the speech is targeted. Common sense can be helpful but consult with an objective party, leadership or outside counsel as needed.
  • Political debate doesn’t have to be heated but is more likely to be polarizing in today’s climate. It is generally not productive in the workplace. Employees can be encouraged to refrain from this talk while at work if they can’t maintain composure and professional demeanor.
  • Any employee who is unable to get along with coworkers can be cautioned, counseled and terminated under certain circumstances. Consult your labor attorney as needed.

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