What would you do if you found a noose at our worksite? Just in case there’s anyone not aware of it, nooses are used to symbolize racist sentiments–more specifically hatred against the Black/African-American population. “Wait,” you might be thinking, “did you just ask me what I’d do if I saw a noose in my worksite? Now? In 2021? Really? The answer is “Yes”, to all parts of that question. It does happen. It has just happened. In fact, it just happened for the seventh time at an Amazon construction site. Yes, that’s right, seven times at the same worksite. So this racist behavior, at one of its construction sites occurred not just one, but seven times? Let’s take a look at what is known. Let’s see if we can come up with some ways you can respond if your company should, unfortunately, find itself in a similar situation, or, better still, what you might do in an effort to prevent such a scenario–and why… I’ll respond first to what I assume will be the burning question for all (or most?) of you: “How has the same hateful, racist act happened seven times at the same worksite–particularly if Amazon didn’t ‘allow’ it?” Here, in a nutshell, is what we know so far, of what’s gone down:
On April 27, someone reported finding a noose hung from a second-floor steel beam. This was the first such incident. Between April 27 and this past Wednesday, this incident repeated itself 5 more times. Then, two days ago, officers on a private duty assignment “were made aware of the discovery of a rope which could be interpreted as a noose hanging within overhead beams on the site.” This latest incident apparently occurred during a lunch break. In all seven incidents, the ropes were hung in an area without surveillance cameras. The area apparently has “hundreds of employees from various companies”, making it difficult to narrow down suspects or even get good leads. One worker admitted to having heard racist comments on the site and even fired a member of his crew for racist comments.
OK, but what is Amazon doing about it? We know that Amazon has involved and cooperated with the police and that the FBI is also now involved. Uniformed police officers have been walking through the site every day and talking with workers. Most recently, Amazon temporarily shut down the site, in order to put additional security measures in place. Amazon and the construction team are offering a reward to anyone with information that leads to the arrest of anyone responsible. As of now, the potential award is $100,000.
Shutting down the site and putting additional security measures in place, and offering a reward for information is certainly a start. It is not clear whether Amazon is doing its own investigation. Here’s the problem, though: There have been seven such incidents in less than a month. In fact, the other 5 nooses were reported as of April 29. In other words, 6 of the 7 nooses were hung over a two-day period.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 came into being in order to eradicate this type of conduct. It prohibits discrimination in the workplace on the basis of race, creed, color, national origin, sex, and religion. It prohibits the creation and promotion of a hostile work environment toward anyone in any of the aforementioned protected classes. If this isn’t a hostile work environment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (and probably state laws as well) then I don’t know what is.
Now, I get that there are hundreds of workers on the site, and I get that these 7 instances of racism happened very close together. Here, however, is, in my opinion, the burning question: Why did it take 7 nooses for Amazon to shut down the worksite? If it didn’t see fit to do so after the first time, why, after the discovery of 5 more nooses a mere 2 days later, did it not do so then? I have read multiple news reports about this worksite and the nooses and have been unable to find any indication of what Amazon did prior to Wednesday, other than call and cooperate with the police. I am not saying Amazon didn’t do anything, I’m merely saying we don’t know if it did. We do know, however, that the worksite remained open until the discovery of Noose #7. The shutdown after Noose #7 is probably in no small part due to involvement of and increased pressure from the local chapter of the NAACP.
As disturbing as this news is–actually, it is beyond disturbing–here’s something that should up the ante for Amazon: so far it is already facing 5 other unrelated lawsuits for race and gender discrimination. Now, I am not saying that Amazon directly caused the nooses to be hung at this worksite. However, if Amazon has faced this or similar issues at other worksites, it suggests, at the very least the need for increased efforts to ensure that fulfillment of its federal and state law obligations to take every reasonable step to provide its workers a safe, harassment and discrimination-free work environment.
What are some takeaways for the rest of us? Unfortunately, no employer can guarantee that racist behavior will not happen at its worksite. An employer can guarantee that it will take appropriate steps to either that it doesn’t or that it will take swift remedial action when it does. What might that look like? Here are some starting points:
- Robust policies not only prohibiting such conduct but clearly defining what constitutes harassment and discrimination, and the possible consequences;
- A clear reporting and anti-retaliation policy;
- Training everyone on these policies;
- Enforcing the policies, which in turn includes, without limitation: a) prompt investigation of all allegations, even those you suspect are unfounded; b) holding perpetrators accountable, no matter who they are, be they managers, executives, relatives or friends of executives–you get the idea; c) holding accountable means strong consequences, which could mean termination or whatever you think will send a strong message to everyone that your company does not and will not tolerate such behavior; d) similarly addressing any allegations of retaliation, encouraging employees to report such concerns, and making it clear that retaliation will meet similar consequences.
- If you have a lot of people coming in and out of a worksite, you might think of hiring security guards and/or using surveillance cameras.
The list is not meant to be exhaustive, but it should serve as a good starting point. This conduct is morally repugnant and patently illegal. It’s 2021 and we’re in the United States. Let’s do a better job of walking our talk.
Watch the latest video clip in my series, “Ask the Employer’s Lawyer: My Employee Has Exhausted All Her FMLA Leave Time. What do I do?
Watch my television interview on Stop My Crisis with Vivian Gaspar.
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