Back in the 19th Century, an English children’s rhyme declared that “Sticks and stones may break my bones, But words shall never hurt me.” Today, we have a more nuanced and complete recognition of the power of words to inflict real damage, especially slurs directed at historically disadvantaged people. That includes the use of those epithets in the workplace. Even if the word isn’t used a lot, it may still be enough to “alter the terms and conditions” of your job. When that happens, you may have the proof you need to win an employment discrimination case in New Jersey.
The courts have already addressed the “N-word” and its potentially discriminatory impact on Black workers. Back in 2017, the federal Third Circuit court, whose appellate rulings impact federal cases in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, said that even just one use of that word by a supervisor, while obviously not pervasive discrimination, was enough to qualify as severe discrimination in violation of federal law.
While that slur is widely recognized as perhaps the vilest epithet, the New Jersey courts have addressed cases involving other words and other groups and whether isolated use of other racial/ethnic slurs can be severe enough to qualify as actionable discrimination. Recently, this state’s highest court decided that answer was “yes.”
The employee was a Latino man working at a pharmaceutical company in Somerset. His direct supervisor, a woman of East Asian ancestry, allegedly used the epithet “s***” (a four-letter vulgar slur denoting a Hispanic person) twice in front of him. Of the man’s efforts to buy a house, the supervisor allegedly said that ““it must be hard for a [s***] to have to get FHA loans.” Later, in discussing an actress auditioning for a role in one of the company’s commercials, the supervisor told the man the actress “would work if she didn’t look too” much like a s***.
After each of the two slurs, the man reported his supervisor to his employer’s Human Resources Director. The supervisor subsequently put the man on probation and the employer fired him a few months later.
Certain racial or ethnic slurs need not be used frequently to be discriminatory
New Jersey courts have already declared that particularly vile slurs can be grounds for a viable employment discrimination case, even if it happened only once. In 1998, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled for a Black woman who, although not hit with the N-word, was nevertheless on the receiving end of a disgusting racial slur. The high court, in that case, said that an “’unambiguously demeaning racial message’ or an ‘ugly, stark and raw’ racist slur — can be sufficiently severe to establish a claim even if used only once.”
The test, that ruling reminds readers, is what a reasonable person in the shoes of that worker would perceive. In an N-word case, the jury must analyze how a reasonable Black worker would be impacted. In a case like this most recent one, the standard is what a reasonable Latino or Latina worker would perceive after hearing their supervisor use the word “s***” twice, one of which was used toward them. Other courts have already concluded that this slur is arguably the most severe epithet one can use against a Latino/Latina person. One court even called it “like receiving a slap in the face.” The fact that the utterer was the man’s direct supervisor only served to amplify the severity of the discrimination.
Even though the second utterance was not directed at the man, it was still profoundly damaging. The supervisor’s alleged comment in that instance effectively communicated that people who had physical traits consistent with Latinos/Latinas did not “have the ‘right’ look” for the company.
Given their harmful impact, these alleged epithets “could taint every interaction that followed” between “a reasonable Hispanic employee” and his/her supervisor. In other words, the allegation described a severe form of discrimination, and the man was entitled to continue pursuing his case.
The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination exists to seek “nothing less than the eradication of the cancer of discrimination.” Unfortunately, one of those cancers too many New Jersey workers face is racial/ethnic/sexual epithets. Whether you’re a Black worker dealing with the N-word at work, a woman who has encountered the C-word, a gay worker who’s dealt with the F-word, or a Latino/Latina who’s heard slurs like this man in Somerset did, it is something that should not happen, it is something that inflicts very real damage within the workplace and it may be something that can be the foundation of a successful discrimination action. To find out more about your legal options, reach out to the experienced New Jersey nationality/ethnicity discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates. Contact us online or at (609) 436-9087 today to set up a free and confidential consultation.