Racist complaints are a nasty black mark on any business. Most employers will want to handle the issue as swiftly and diplomatically as possible.
This usually includes terminating those employees who are responsible for racist behavior at work. But Chicago-area employers should consider the following before making any employment decisions:
Illinois' Public Accommodations Law
If a business receives a complaint that a customer was either harassed or refused service based on race, that business may be in violation of Illinois' public accommodations law, a part of the Illinois Human Rights Act.
This law affects any business open to the public, and makes it illegal to deny "full and equal enjoyment" to any customer by discriminating based on race (as well as other protected categories). This can include racial slurs overheard by a customer.
Customers can also sue in federal court for discrimination in public accommodations, which may end up costing a business hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Firing Employees for Racist Remarks
A business may want to fire an employee immediately after finding out about allegations of racism at work. Unlawful discrimination at work can be a valid reason for terminating an at-will employee.
However, business owners may want to conduct in-company investigations of the allegations first. It's often wise to keep a record of the allegations as well as the recommended discipline (i.e., your decision to fire the employee).
When dealing with complaints of racism, a business can benefit from having an anti-discrimination and/or harassment policy, which can provide clear bases for firing a non-compliant employee.
Apologize and Make Amends
As Papa John's founder and CEO demonstrated recently, even when employees do something terrible unbeknownst to the company or its policies, an apology combined with some firings is never a bad move.
Apologizing may not relieve companies of their liability for discrimination lawsuits, but a company that makes changes to solve future problems is easier to forgive.
- Lesson: Don't Call Regular Customers Racial Slurs (FindLaw's Free Enterprise)
- United Airlines Racism Suit Highlights Trouble With Lawsuits: Proof (FindLaw's Chicago Employment Law Blog)
- Papa John's Receipt Fiasco: When a Company's Racist Act Goes Viral (FindLaw's In House)
- Browse Chicago Employment Law -- Employer Lawyers and Law Firms (FindLaw)