December 14, 2010

N-word e-mail becomes key evidence in hostile environment lawsuit

Posted in Color, Discrimination, Harassment, Race, Social Media in the Workplace, Social Networking tagged , , , , at 6:05 pm by Tom Jacobson

“We should go forward with getting this [n*****] out of here,” a Hanesbrands supervisor recently wrote in an e-mail to his boss.  The e-mail was referring to Yunusa Kenchi, a black clothing designer for Hanesbrands.  Kenchi discovered the e-mail, and two days later, he was fired.  The e-mail is now a key piece of evidence in Kenchi’s hostile environment race discrimination lawsuit against Hanesbrands.

The e-mail isn’t Kenchi’s only evidence.  He also alleges that a Caucasian subordinate was given preferential treatment and that there were discriminatory remarks made in the workplace.  For example, he claims that when someone asked about some black fabric, a co-worker pointed at him and said “Here’s the black one right here.”

In addition, the e-mail had actually been deleted after the supervisor sent it, but it resurfaced as supposedly deleted e-mails often do.  Kenchi’s attorney, Patrick Boyd, now describes the deletion at a “cover-up.”

To its credit, Hanesbrands conducted diversity training the day after the e-mail was sent, and it eventually reprimanded the supervisor who sent it.  Kenchi’s response to those efforts is essentially that they were too little, too late.

Whether Kenchi wins the $1 million-plus he is seeking will ultimately be decided by the courts.  The outcome will likely depend not only on Kenchi’s evidence of bias within Hanesbrands, but also on Hanesbrands’ evidence of its internal response to his complaints.

In most respects there is nothing particularly remarkable about this case.  Rather than being sent via e-mail, the inappropriate comments could just as easily have been made in a printed memo, in a conversation, in a Facebook post, on in any other media.  And, they could have been based on the employee’s gender, religion, age or any other protected classification.

Nevertheless, the case reminds us that despite the progress that has been made in eliminating workplace discrimination, it still exists.  It also reminds us that policy development and training, combined with prompt and appropriate internal responses to discrimination complaints, can provide solid defenses if such claims are brought in court.  Whether such defenses will work for Hanesbrands in this case remains to be seen.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

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