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“You people” may be setting up your employer for liability

June 12th, 2014  |  Kathy Kapusta

While a supervisor’s use of the “n-word” or other racially offensive epithets clearly provides strong evidence in support of a finding of racial bias, what about the use of a more ambiguous phrase such as “you people?” A survey of recent cases reveals that the phrase is used surprisingly often. And while context, of course, counts, a recent decision from a federal court in New York suggests that it may be a good idea to add that phrase to the list of words that should be banned from the workplace.

In that case, the court found that a Holiday Inn general manager’s comment — made during a heated, profanity-laced confrontation with an African-American employee, in which he said something to the effect of “you people are never satisfied” shortly before he fired the housekeeper — together with his shifting explanations for her termination, were sufficient to support her contention that her release was motivated by her race.

“You people are never satisfied”

The confrontation arose out of an email that the GM wrote to the employee’s supervisor expressing his displeasure with the entire housekeeping staff. He also specifically complained about the employee’s check in/check out times and his inability to find her that morning even though she was punched in. He concluded the email by stating that he was “done with attitudes, the sense of entitlement, the sense of disrespect from your department” and if “things don’t change, I will clean house and start from scratch.”

When the employee learned about the email, she confronted the GM. She contended that in addition to the “you people” comment, he also told her “I’m fu*king tired about [sic] you people. You [sic] always complaining about something, this or that and this or that.” She was fired after she allegedly told him to “fu*k off.” The employee, however, claimed that she didn’t tell him that until after she was terminated. She then sued, asserting a Title VII claim for race discrimination.

Up to the jury

While the employer did not dispute that the GM uttered some form of the phrase “you people are never satisfied,” it implied that the phrase was not a reference to black people but instead to the entire housekeeping staff. The court, however, found that a fact issue existed as to the phrase’s intended meaning. Noting the employee’s contention that the GM uttered the phrase soon after reminding her that he had allowed her family to stay in the hotel free of charge, the court observed that a factfinder could conclude that he was upset that the employee, a black woman, continued to raise complaints despite his generosity.

However, the hotel’s suggestion that he was referring to the housekeeping staff was also plausible as the confrontation was precipitated by his email, which called into question the staff’s competency. Moreover, there was no dispute that the exchange concerned work-related, and not race-related, issues. In denying the hotel’s motion for summary judgment, the court pointed out that while the phrase “you people” is ambiguous and not necessarily indicative of discrimination, it was up to a factfinder to reach its own conclusion on the GM’s state of mind at the time of the adverse employment decision.

Key considerations

This case should serve as a reminder to employers to review your policy against discrimination and harassment to ensure it requires that employees treat each other with respect. The policy should make clear that behavior a reasonable person would consider offensive and inappropriate in the workplace, even if it does not rise to the level of unlawful conduct, violates the respect rule. Interactions with coworkers, managers and customers should be guided by courtesy and common sense.

Further in addition to requiring all management personnel to participate in antidiscrimination training, all employees should also be required to participate in a workshop about discrimination at the start of their employment. Finally, make it clear that discrimination will not be tolerated and persons engaging in discriminatory behavior will be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal.