Kanye West’s anti-Semitic comments on Instagram and Twitter have prompted a swift backlash by businesses formerly associated with the rap and fashion mogul. Thus far, West has been dropped by Gap, Balenciaga, Adidas, talent agency CAA, JP Morgan Chase bank, Vogue magazine, and others. Ye (as the rapper and entrepreneur is now known) is learning that even he cannot make inflammatory remarks with impunity, and he must face the consequences for his inappropriate behavior.
In the employment setting, of course, employers have the right and obligation to address and prevent racist, harassing, or other harmful comments and behavior by their employees. Here are three steps every employer should take when responding to employees’ racist comments:
Employers should investigate any complaint of discrimination or harassment, as well as behavior that becomes known to the employers through other means such as social media. Failing to take action and ignoring the problem could lead your employees, and your customers or clients, to believe that you condone racist conduct, harming your company’s reputation in the process. In addition, failing to address discriminatory comments that occur in the workplace or in a work setting could lead to liability under Title VII or comparable state civil rights laws.
After the investigation is completed, you should take action based on the severity of the conduct at issue. Often, when an employee has insulted or offended someone but the infraction was not serious, a verbal warning or another corrective action may adequately address the issue. Other times, however, when an employee’s behavior is especially egregious (I’m looking at you, Kanye), employers may proceed directly to terminating the employee without the need for progressive discipline. For example, comments that could be classified as hate speech, physical threats, severe harassment, or damaging to your organization’s reputation may warrant immediate termination.
Set Expectations in Policies
To put your company on solid ground when addressing employees who make offensive comments, whether in the workplace or online, make sure your employee handbook addresses the types of conduct that could lead to disciplinary action and termination. Also, if you don’t already have a social media policy, you should implement one promptly and disseminate it to your workforce to put them on notice that they will be held responsible for racist or harassing comments they tweet or post about online, especially if your organization’s name is listed on employees’ social media profiles. Once you have the necessary policies in place, you need to train your employees on the types of conduct you deem unacceptable and explain the company’s complaint process, as well as the consequences for violating the policies.
It remains to be seen what will become of West and whether his latest antics will lead to permanent banishment from social media and future business opportunities. While employers cannot control their employees’ conduct any more than West’s business partners could control his outbursts, employers can control how they address and prevent discriminatory conduct from festering in the workplace in order to promote a respectful and healthy work environment. In addressing racist and harassing conduct head on, companies send a strong message to the workforce and customers that such behavior is contrary to their values and will not be tolerated.