August 28th, 2019
Fiona Ong at Shawe Rosenthal
Attempt to Protect the Employee from Racism Leads to Discrimination Claim!
In an ironic twist, a manager’s alleged attempt to protect an employee from racism resulted in a discrimination claim by that employee.
In Ikome v. CSRA, LLC, the employee hailed from Cameroon and had very dark skin. He helped his employer, an information technology services company, win a contract in North Carolina with the Environmental Protection Agency and became project manager on the contract. Within weeks, however, he was replaced as project manager by a lighter-skinned African-American coworker. In his lawsuit for color and national origin discrimination, he alleges that his manager told him that people in North Carolina are “rednecks” (The manager denied using the term, but the employee’s allegations are assumed to be true at this point in the litigation, before it goes to a jury). The employee interpreted this to mean that rednecks are racist, and a lighter-skinned person would be more acceptable to them.
So assuming that the term “redneck” was used, the employer denied that it was discriminatory. However, the federal district court for Maryland found that it was, citing to the widely disparate authorities of the Oxford English Dictionary (‘any unsophisticated or poorly educated person, esp. one holding bigoted or reactionary attitudes”) and the singer Randy Newman (“as anyone who has listened to the lyrics of Randy Newman’s famously satirical song ‘Rednecks’ knows, in common parlance, the term “redneck” often connotes racism”). (I’m not familiar with the song, so I looked up the lyrics. Yup, they’re pretty racist. You can google them yourself.)
Now this derogatory term was not being directed towards the employee, but towards the good citizens of North Carolina (again, assuming that it was actually made). But because it was made in the context of the employee’s removal from the project manager position, the court found that the employee’s color and/or national origin could be implicated in the decision. So even if the employer were concerned about the employee’s possible exposure to racists, that concern caused them to take a negative employment action against the employee because of his color and/or national origin – which violates the law.
Of course, if the employee were subjected to discriminatory comments and other actions from any such “rednecks,” the employer might be liable for failing to protect the employee from such racist conduct. So, damned if you do, damned if you don’t. But the real lesson here is not to make decisions about what’s best for the employee based on assumptions about what might happen. And perhaps the term “redneck” is not appropriate in the workplace (and I say this as a hillbilly from West Virginia!).