Black and Hispanic workers at a mattress manufacturing plant were subject to “severe racial harassment” – including racist jokes, a noose and a Ku Klux Klan hood – while senior management ignored their complaints, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) said in a recent press release.
As a result of an EEOC investigation of the discrimination charges, Sealy of Minnesota, which operates the mattress and box spring plant in St. Paul, agreed to pay $175,000 to settle charges that black and Hispanic workers were subject to unlawful racial harassment and a hostile work environment.
The EEOC determined that Sealy’s senior management failed to take action to address the harassment and hostile work environment, despite receiving numerous complaints. The agency said there was reasonable cause to believe the company violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and also discriminated against black and Hispanic employees in its employment decisions for lead positions at its St. Paul facility.
“Sealy now understands that it is not enough for an employer to have an anti-harassment policy,” said Julie Schmid, acting director of the EEOC’s Minneapolis Area Office. “An employer must have an effective policy, respond to allegations promptly, and take immediate and appropriate corrective action to end the discrimination.”
EEOC said the company is working with the federal agency to create and implement an anti-harassment policy that will better address employee complaints, including an anonymous hotline for employees to report incidents of discrimination. Sealy also agreed to revise its hiring and application process for lead positions, in order to select candidates based on their relevant skills and experience.
Additional training for supervisors, managers and owners
In addition to paying $175,000 to the victims of the workplace harassment, Sealy will provide anti-discrimination training to all its employees and additional training on harassment and retaliation to its supervisors, managers and owners, the EEOC said. Sealy will also revise the performance evaluations of all supervisors to require compliance with EEOC laws as part of their job descriptions.
Complaint process key to enforcing anti-harassment policy
A formal complaint process that provides a prompt, thorough and impartial investigation into employee complaints is a key component of an effective anti-harassment policy and program. The EEOC recommends that employers adopt a strong anti-harassment policy that provides:
- Clear assurance that employees who make complaints or provide information related to complaints will be protected against retaliation
- A clear description of the complaint process, with multiple, accessible avenues of complaint, such as an employee hotline
- Assurance that the employer will protect the confidentiality of harassment complaints to the extent possible
- Assurance that the employer will take immediate and appropriate corrective action after determining harassment has occurred
As Sealy of Minnesota learned, ignoring complaints of discrimination and harassment not only fosters an unproductive, hostile work environment, it can result in expensive fines and penalties. The EEOC’s perspective is clear: Employers can be liable for harassment if they knew, or should have known, about their employees’ offensive conduct, and failed to take prompt and appropriate action to correct it.