What’s in a name?

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It goes without saying that employers should strive to be proactive in eliminating harassment and discrimination in the workplace. This may require that steps be taken to ensure that employees are trained to recognize, appreciate and respect ethnic characteristics beyond those associated with one’s skin tone or physical attributes.

The Wisconsin Law Journal recently published an article stating that ethnic characteristics can include ethnic names and conceivably encompass speech patterns unique to a particular ethnic group and customs and traditions of various ethnic groups.

The article includes the following hypothetical situation:  Over the last several months one of your managers, Teddy, has gone around on several occasions referring to Alonzo Ramirez, a sales representative of Hispanic descent, as “Al” to other employees and to potential customers during sales calls. For Teddy, whose full name is Theodore Adams, this is a way to help make Alonzo (like he has successfully done for himself) more personable to staff and customers alike. Alonzo, however, does not agree and begins to insist that Teddy refer to him by his birth name. Teddy, honestly seeing no harm in what he’s doing, continues to call Alonzo “Al” on occasion, particularly during sales calls.

Alonzo is convinced that Teddy’s deliberate and routine “Americanizing” of his Hispanic name over his objections has created a racially harassing and hostile work environment. He contacts you and threatens suit unless something is done quickly.

Can Teddy’s repeated references to Alonzo as Al, which on its face are racially neutral, serve as the basis of a successful harassment/hostile work environment claim? The short answer is yes, even if there is no evidence of discriminatory intent other than the Westernizing or Americanizing of an ethnic name. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals recently dealt with this very issue. Ethnic characteristics protected by the law include more than just a person’s skin color and physical traits. The court noted that names in and of themselves are often a proxy for race and ethnicity.

The court determined that the defendant’s refusal to refer to the plaintiff by his given ethnic name was based on his race/ethnicity. Further, even if there was no direct evidence that the defendant believed his actions had racial implications, his decision to discriminate against the plaintiff’s Arab name in favor of Western names provided sufficient evidence of prohibited discriminatory intent. It supported a finding of a racially hostile work environment.

So what does this all mean for you in dealing with Alonzo’s problems with Teddy? It means you should take his concerns seriously. If the story he relays to you can be substantiated, it could very well mean that he has in fact been harassed and subjected to a hostile work environment in violation of the law. To avoid liability, you should take prompt appropriate remedial action including, but not limited to, disciplining Teddy, reassigning him to another location or terminating his employment. The same holds true even if you conclude after your investigation that Teddy, in his mind, had noble intentions. Good intentions in this regard will likely not be enough to overcome racial or ethnic insensitivity and discriminatory preference.

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