When is a racial slur OK?

Linda Willing

In a fit of anger, a volunteer fire chief uses profanity and racial epithets, including the N-word, when addressing members of the department.

During a planning meeting, a career fire marshal uses the N-word when referring to some members of the community.

Were these serious incidents? In both cases, the departments thought so.

In the first case, the assistant chief was expelled from the department after a disciplinary hearing. In the second case, the fire marshal was suspended for 10 days.

Now consider the fact that in the first instance, not only the assistant chief but also the people to whom the racial slur was directed were all white. In the second case, the fire marshal using the racial slur was black.

Should these circumstances make a difference in the outcome of both incidents?

Most people are clear that racial slurs are offensive. People have been fired for using them; their use has been the basis for successful harassment claims against employers. Yet the use of racial epithets in the workplace is not as clear-cut as it may seem on the surface.

Gray area
Racial slurs are common in popular entertainment — movies, television, and music. Some members of minority groups use racial slurs in conversation among themselves in a way that is intended to be inclusive rather than offensive.

Some people say that what is important is the intention behind a word, not the word itself. But taking this approach is a minefield for fire department leaders.

Consider the case decided in federal court in New York last fall that involved a supervisor who used the N-word in addressing one of his employees. Both parties in this suit were black.

The supervisor said he used the word as a term of "love and endearment." The employee saw it differently: she said she felt "offended, hurt, degraded, disrespected, and embarrassed."

The result of this case was an award by a jury of $30,000 in punitive damages and $250,000 in compensatory damages. Of that amount, the supervisor was personally responsible for $25,000 in damages.

Workplace rules
If someone intends to be hurtful in speech or actions, that is obviously worse than someone who unintentionally offends someone else. But when it comes to the use of offensive language in the workplace, some simple rules can apply.

If a word is offensive and unacceptable in a professional context, as the n-word clearly is, then it should not be used at work — by anyone in any context, regardless of the stated intention.

But what about free speech, you say? Won't employees complain that their First Amendment rights are being violated if you forbid them from using specific words at work?

People at work (and this includes those who are compensated in other ways than a paycheck) do not have unlimited freedom of expression. Employers have considerable power in setting limits and requirements that are professionally necessary and appropriate.

One example of this limitation on First Amendment rights is the requirement in most fire departments that members wear uniforms and standard safety gear.

Eliminating racial, ethnic, and sexual slurs from the workplace is a mark of professionalism, not political correctness. A workplace that is free from the use of this kind of language is more inclusive, safer, and more respectful of both its members and the community it serves.

What is the best way to eliminate inappropriate language from the workplace? Four elements are critical.

Four steps
First, a clear and reasonable policy must be in place. This policy is best developed through the process of consensus rather than individual decree.

Second, educate all members about the policy. This process will not just inform members what is expected of them, but also why those expectations exist. Facilitated discussion and scenario analysis can be good ways to allow people to draw their own conclusions and have greater buy-in to the policy.

Third, there must be consequences for violation of the policy. It is important to react, but equally important not to overreact. Don't get caught in the trap of ignoring inappropriate behavior most of the time and then suddenly making an example of someone.

Finally, this is an issue where leading by example is paramount. As a leader you cannot use inappropriate language. Not as a joke. Not in casual conversation with friends at work. Not in a fit of anger. Not for any reason.

Firefighters understand professionalism when engaging in emergency response and interacting with the service community. When it comes to interactions among coworkers, there may be more latitude, but this does not mean that anything goes.

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