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Politics in the workplace can lead to more than just strange bedfellows

June 4th, 2013  |  Kathy Kapusta

In a 2012 survey, thirty-six percent of participating workers reported that they discuss politics at work.  Of those, 23 percent had a heated discussion or fight with a co-worker, boss, or someone else higher up in the organization. Not surprisingly, then, a recent decision from a federal court in Pennsylvania has served up a reminder as to why allowing politics in the workplace may spell t-r-o-u-b-l-e for the employer. In Lucas v City of Philadelphia (No 11-4376), an African-American employee alleged that he was a surrogate for his supervisor’s hostility toward Barack Obama. The employee claimed that his supervisor made racist comments to him regarding Obama, made him listen to Rush Limbaugh, and made him a surrogate for Obama at work “where he took out his displeasures of what was going on in the political arena and the race arena.”

Around this same time, the supervisor spoke to the employee about violating city policy by failing to remain within five miles of the work area during lunch. He was subsequently suspended without pay for violating this policy three separate times. However, after a bout of anxiety landed him the hospital and then to early retirement, he sued the city alleging, among other things, that he was subjected to a hostile work environment because of his race.

“Weak at best.” The city first argued that the employee failed to show he suffered intentional discrimination. It pointed out that of the 14 employees the supervisor managed, eight were African American and the employee failed to prove that any other African Americans in his unit were subjected to the same treatment. Rejecting this argument, however, the court focused on the employee’s testimony that his supervisor repeatedly commented about his support for Obama because he was black, that he was Obama’s surrogate for his supervisor’s hostility over race and politics, and that the supervisor had a derogatory image of Obama on his computer. Despite finding that this evidence was “weak at best,” the court nonetheless concluded that a reasonable jury could find that the supervisor did, in fact, harbor some racial animus and treated the employee poorly due to his race.

Hyper-sensitive employee? The court also rejected the city’s contention that the supervisor’s allegedly discriminatory actions were merely instances in which he performed his supervisory duties and the employee unreasonably took offense. Noting that there could be some truth to this argument, the court observed that crediting the supervisor’s version of events, it would be inclined to agree that the employee’s interpretation of the conduct at issue was nothing more than the reaction of a hyper-sensitive employee. Crediting the employee’s version, however, the court noted that a reasonable jury could conclude that a similarly situated African American would have been detrimentally affected by the supervisor’s actions. Accordingly, the court allowed the employee’s race-based hostile work environment claim to proceed to trial.

When we think of “taboo” workplace topics, we instantly think of religion, race, and personal issues as subjects to avoid. However, as this opinion illustrates, allowing political incivility into the workplace can be costly for employers who may end up defending an employment discrimination claim as a result, despite evidence that may be “weak at best.”