Be alert for subtle discrimination

Harassment needn't be blatant to qualify as discriminatory under Title VII of the Civil Rights law.

By Raymond Dreyfack September 1, 1999

Harassment needn’t be blatant to qualify as discriminatory under Title VII of the Civil Rights law.

Certain members of the maintenance crew had been warned by Foreman Chuck Wakefield that they would be disciplined if they continued to harass Utility Worker Nat Gold. The culprits were thus careful not to cast direct aspersions such as referring to Gold as “Jew boy” in his presence. Still, they managed to make his existence miserable in a variety of ways. Repeatedly during lunch breaks in the cafeteria, workers would switch tables when Gold sat down to eat there.

On one occasion when a Jewish applicant was hired, a worker remarked within Gold’s hearing, “Just what we need, another one of them around here.” Other times, with Gold the obvious subject of discussion, employees would chuckle derisively so that ridicule, though not uttered aloud, got through nonetheless.

Although such treatment violated company policy, the antisemitic employees were not reprimanded. Indirect harassment, Wakefield reasoned, didn’t constitute discrimination under the law.

Gold didn’t see it that way. Driven to desperation and unable to quit because work was hard to find in the area and he needed the job, he went over his boss’ head and filed a complaint with Plant Engineer Ralph Cummings.

Question: In Cummings’ place, what action, if any, would you take?

Plant engineer’s response: Cummings’ first step was to check and confim Gold’s allegations. He then summoned Wakefield to his office.

“The type of harassment these guys are practicing is typical of discrimination in this era. That it is less blatant and direct than in the past, makes it no less hurtful and destructive. It is a distinct violation under Title VII protection. It’s your job as supervisor to make it clear to the offenders — and you know who they are — that if they don’t cease and desist, they will be subject to discipline.”