Fourth Circuit Reminds Employers that Non-Employees May Cause a Hostile Work Environment

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit recently reminded employers that non-employees can cause a hostile work environment. Employers are responsible for ensuring that neither employees nor non-employees subject an employee to harassment.

Case background

In Chapman v. Oakland Living Center, Inc., the plaintiff sued her employer for allowing the employer’s six-year-old grandson to repeatedly call her racial slurs. The employee alleged that the child said at one point that his father called the employee a “lazy ass [slur], because you didn’t come to work.”

Under Title VII, a hostile work environment is created when the conduct is unwelcome, based on one of the plaintiff’s protected characteristics, is so severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive environment, and imputable to the employer.

In this case, the defendant argued that the use of racial slurs by a child was not severe enough to make them liable for a hostile work environment. The Fourth Circuit disagreed. Because the child was the owner’s grandson—and the son of a supervisor who would presumably take over the business later—a reasonable person could assume that the child had the support of his family and could make life increasingly difficult. This is distinguished from, for example, the same egregious racial slur from a customer’s child. It’s also important to note that it doesn’t matter if the child was too young to understand what he was saying, nor does it matter whether he intended to harm the plaintiff. The effect of the language is enough to be actionable.

If you’ve been unfairly targeted or notice a hostile work environment at your place of employment, an experienced whistleblower attorney at Kardell Law Group can help. Call today for a consultation.