September 25, 2010 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
“Mr. Beaver, I am writing on behalf of both myself and several co-workers. We have a supervisor, Rob, who thinks that he’s a stand-up comic. But no one except him is laughing,” “Karen” wrote. (Names have been changed.)
“He belittles and ridicules us with a non-stop racial, ethnic, religious put-downs, jokes and stories,” she continued.
“We work in a food-processing plant in California’s Central Valley. People from a number of countries are employed here. We are lucky to have a job in these tough times, and appreciate the company for keeping their doors open. Our quarrel isn’t with the owners, but with our supervisor,” she wrote.
He’s a modern-day Rip Van Winkle
“The day he began working here, an assistant plant manager introduced him as a friend who lost his job as an advertising executive, and described Rob as a perfect fit for the company, with good people skills and a great sense of humor. We were asked to help him understand what we do, and to work with him. Rob met everyone, shook our hands, and that day we all had truly good feelings and wanted to help this man in his new job.”
“The next day those positive feelings were replaced with jaw-dropping disbelief, as we discovered what we really got in this new supervisor. He is from the deep South, around 60, and his idea of humor is a bad Las Vegas lounge show, something out of the ’50s and ’60s. He is like a poor imitation of the wonderful comedian, Don Rickles.
“Rob truly thinks that he is hysterical, and he is. He’s hysterically insulting, crude, doesn’t care to know anything about our industry, but is convinced that the way you manage is, for example, by calling one very nice – but also overweight employee – Miss Piggy, addressing a really adorable young black kid as “Boy,” and on it goes. I have heard him ask employees from Yemen, “Where did you park your camel today?” He calls employees from India, “Maharaja,” [and] I can’t repeat how he refers to our president.”
“At first, we thought he was kidding, as some of his one-liners really are funny, but then it sadly became clear that he wasn’t kidding. Perhaps he has not been in a diverse workforce before, but he is an equal-opportunity bigot. It is as if we are dealing with a modern-day Rip Van Winkle who fell asleep when such comments were tolerated, but awoke in a different age.”
“He lacks sensitivity, understanding or awareness that he is hurting the feelings of the people he supervises. Some of us have nicely told him that this type of humor is not being well received; he says that we need to lighten up!”
“What can we do? We do not want to get ourselves fired over this. Your advice would really be appreciated.”
“Your reader is to be complimented for her loyalty, however, unless she and others speak up immediately to the right people at the company, their silence could result in a horribly expensive lawsuit hurting the employer, resulting in the loss of jobs. They are all sitting on a keg of dynamite and the fuse is slowly burning,” Central California labor law attorney Rick Ross told me when I ran these facts by him.
“Karen is describing harassment and discrimination against employees who are in protected categories under the law. These include: race, sex, gender, ethnicity, national origins, color, sexual orientation, mental or physical disability, medical condition, military or veteran status, and religion.”
“While generally one inappropriate joke or comment won’t get a company sued, a pattern of unwelcome jokes or comments about employees in these categories creates a hostile work environment, and is unlawful. That can get you sued! Examples include saying “Boy” to a black employee, comments about a women’s physical attributes, whistling, negative comments about ethnicity such as “Mexican employees should stay in the field,” and so on.”
“As a group, these employees need to talk to the owner, plant manager or the person designated by the company for such complaints in a direct and positive way. There is safety in numbers; this gives them more credibility and protection under the National Labor Relations Act, as a ‘concerted activity.’ They should also put these complaints in writing but do not have to sign it. A writing eliminates a ‘he said, she said’ situation, requires the company to investigate the issues and will be taken more seriously by management,” the labor relations attorney recommended.
And what if they do all of these things, yet nothing changes? We’ll have the answer, next week.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.