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Break-room comments no basis for suit

What are the boundaries for break-room chatter about the current presidential campaign?

As this historic campaign heats up, employers may wonder about how or whether to monitor workplace political discussion. Hot-button issues of race and gender make for lively discussions that are potentially distracting and divisive in the workplace.

One workplace test came in late August when Senior U.S. District Judge Jackson Kiser dismissed an African-American employee’s hostile environment complaint against a white supervisor whose break-room comments about Barack Obama the plaintiff found offensive.

At issue: the supervisor’s alleged comments that Obama was “Black and that he was just trying to get Black votes,” and that “Obama was probably related to the terrorist Osama.”

In his Aug. 21 opinion in Shuler v. Corning Inc., the Danville judge said political pundits have raised the same question: Is race a factor?

Even “assuming the word ‘black’ is a racial slur,” a reasonable person would not find comments regarding a presidential candidate’s race enough to create a racially hostile work environment, the judge said. Nor could the plaintiff show that anything that happened in the break room altered the conditions of his employment.

Comments by the Corning supervisor fell into the category of a “single offensive utterance rather than physically threatening or humiliating conduct,” Kiser wrote, that did not support a Title VII suit.
By Deborah Elkins

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