Finding graffiti on company property is, at the very least, a sign that someone is disrespecting company property. But if the graffiti consists of racial slurs, then it becomes a form of racial harassment. An important step to putting a stop to workplace harassment is interviewing and disciplining, as needed, the harasser. So what is an employer to do when graffiti is done covertly and the perpetrator is unknown? Just because you have a difficult task ahead of you doesn’t mean you don’t have to try.
Bottom line: If management-level personnel are aware of the existence of harassing graffiti, and there are no sufficient investigatory or remedial measures taken, then the employer risks intervention by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and may ultimately be held liable in court.
ANONYMOUS HARASSMENT STILL MUST BE INVESTIGATED
Employers are expected to make a good-faith effort to track down the harasser, beginning with a prompt investigation. Even if your investigatory efforts don’t yield any definitive results, you can document that you tried.
• Interview possible witnesses and targeted employees. Also speak to other shift leaders and department heads. You may be able to uncover information outside of the shift or department that is directly affected by the graffiti.
• Use common sense to find leads. For example, review work schedules to see who was on site at the time the harassment occurred or determine who has access to the area where the graffiti appeared. You could even try to compare employees’ handwritten records against handwritten graffiti.
• Offer a “carrot” to anyone who provides information that successfully leads to discovering the harasser’s identity. The “stick” alternative: Announce that bonuses or raises will be eliminated in order to pay the cost to clean/repaint/replace defaced items or to pay for a full-time security guard if the harassment continues.
• Consider hiring an outside investigator.
REMEDIAL MEASURES COUNT, TOO
Even if you are unable to determine who the graffiti artist is, you need to do what you can to stop the harassment.
Remove the graffiti as soon as the investigation allows. (Just don’t make the mistake one employer did and order the target of the harassment to clean it up!) Before removing the graffiti, “don’t forget to take pictures and document the time and date,” advised Jeannette Seibly, Human Performance Coach and Consultant, SeibCo, LLC (Highlands Ranch, CO). This may help you identify the guilty party in the future.
Reaffirm your employer’s commitment to upholding its anti-discrimination policies. Send out an e-mail or hold department meetings, and reassure employees that the company is working hard to ensure nothing like this happens again. Review the company’s anti-discrimination policies, and remind employees to immediately report the appearance of offensive graffiti and any other signs of harassment to HR or to their managers. Also require supervisory personnel to report graffiti that they see immediately. Do not wait for an employee to complain about it before acting.
Be very clear that anyone who participated or aided in the harassment will be terminated, as will anyone who participates in any future acts of harassment. Seibly recommends zero tolerance.
Consider installing surveillance measures (e.g., video cameras, spyware). Consult with Legal to see whether it is doable. Even setting up “dummy” video cameras in plain sight of employees (who’ll think the cameras are real) may effectively curtail misbehavior.
Provide anti-discrimination training. “Make sure all employees, supervisors, managers, and executives attend,” said Seibly. “This will send a message that this type of behavior will not be tolerated.”
AN UGLY TRUTH
Racial graffiti is not uncommon at worksites around the country. One reason, according to Seibly, may be generational differences. “This is the first time in U.S. history that all four generations are in the workplace at the same time,” she noted. “With younger employees in the workplace, it’s important to remember that their view of ‘harassment’ is different than the older employees…. In many areas of the U.S., the younger generations use racial and gender slurs as part of their normal conversation. They don’t think about it. They don’t have a broader perspective that their words carry weight.”
Seibly strongly recommends ongoing training as a way to “get everyone on the same page” regarding what is acceptable at work and what is not.
Reprinted with permission from Personnel Legal Alert, © Alexander Hamilton Institute, Inc., 70 Hilltop Road, Ramsey, NJ 07446. For more information, please call 800-879-2441 or visit www.legalworkplace.com.