I have recently written about cases where discrimination and retaliation led to large verdicts and huge liability for employers.  These cases remind us that hostility at work, in the form of discrimination and harassment, is wrong and expensive.  An additional example from just this week shows what happens when harassment occurs and is allowed to continue, and ends up out of control.

This past Tuesday, a federal jury in New York awarded $25 million to a steel plant worker on his mind-boggling claims of racial discrimination, harassment and retaliation, as well as some tort claims for emotional distress.  That kind of verdict raises eyebrows for sure.  But what is even more startling is what the employee was subjected to by his co-workers and how his employer responded (or in most cases, failed to respond).

Elijah Turley was one of two African-Americans in his department at a now-closed steel plant in Lackawanna, New York.  From 2005 through 2008 he was subjected to regular racial harassment and then retaliation for complaining.  Some of the “low-lights” of this behavior include the following:

  • A co-worker placed a sign at Turley’s work station that read “Dancing Gorilla” and spray-painted “King Kong” on the wall.  There was no response to Turley’s complaints about this until he complained to security, which wrote up a report and took photos.  However, when Turley later followed up with security, he was told the file and photos had been stolen.  Ultimately, the co-worker who admitted to the graffiti was never disciplined.
  • A co-worker later wrote “KKK” on the wall near Turley’s station.  When Turley complained, the company’s response was “someone is just playing games again.”
  • Turley found a stuffed monkey with a noose around its neck hanging from his car’s side mirror.
  • Turley was called “boy” and “monkey” by co-workers and subjected to other racial slurs.  This behavior was known but not stopped by his employer.
  • After Turley filed harassment complaints with the EEOC and New York Division of Human Rights, Turley was excessively watched and evaluated, was denied sick leave and restroom breaks white employees received, was secretly recorded and was threatened with being fired if he made other complaints, and was even told that anyone who tried to help him would be fired too.

This would have been jaw-droppingly awful conduct had it happened ages ago.  But it occurred just a few years ago — and was allowed to occur by the employer.  That is truly hard to fathom.

No surprise then, that when the jury heard this testimony, and when there was insufficient evidence of the employer taking concrete steps to investigate and put a stop to this behavior, that the jury awarded $25 million in damages, mostly as “punitive damages” to punish the employer.  Also of note, while most of the damage award was against the employer, the jury also found the former HR Manager, Labor Relations Manager and department manager where Mr. Turley worked all personally liable as well for their failure to protect Mr. Turley from this atrocious behavior.

How does all this happen?  Mix some awful co-workers with an unresponsive employer (which even claimed at trial that most of the behavior was just “trash-talking” common in manufacturing facilities), and that is a recipe for disaster.  The financial cost is huge.  But the harm to this company’s reputation and future is likely even greater.

This case should serve as a lesson to all employers.  Harassment by co-workers can occur and that is terrible.  But, how an employer responds to complaints and knowledge of such harassment is the difference between getting rid of the worms infesting a bad apple or letting the whole bushel rot.  As HR professionals, we try not to hire the worms.  But if some slip through, we have to ensure that we weed them out before they turn everything rotten.