The EEOC announced last week a $1.65 million settlement in a case involving a primary contractor and four subcontractors, holding each company liable under a “joint employer” theory for racial harassment that occurred at a construction site. The key question was not which company actually employed the harassers; instead, the EEOC looked at whether supervisors in each company were aware of the harassment and failed to take appropriate action to stop it.

EEOC District Director Marie Tomasso commented: “Employers risk intervention by the EEOC when supervisors ignore racially offensive working conditions and fail to take prompt and effective remedial action to stop it.” Blatantly offensive conduct at this construction site included derogatory racial comments directed toward black employees, use of the “n-word,” repeated references to the Ku Klux Klan, and, in one instance, a noose suspended from a beam.

Although this case is an extreme example of workplace harassment, the lesson to all employers is to take immediate corrective action when an employee first complaints about a racially hostile work environment, regardless of whether your company has primary responsibility for the worksite. Harassment – whether it emanates from your own employees, a vendor, a contractor or a customer of your company, and regardless of whether it occurs in an office setting or out in the field – must be dealt with swiftly and effectively.

For additional information on this case, see: http://www.eeoc.gov/press/5-5-08.html.