Packaging Corporation of America Central Corrugated LLC (PCA) and Schwarz Partners LP, which owned a paper manufacturing plant in California, has agreed to pay $385,000 and implement corrective measures to remedy racial harassment in the plant. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed the lawsuit against the plant owners after two Black workers complained of racial harassment, including the broadcasting of racial slurs over the facility’s radio system, graffiti of swastikas, a makeshift noose, and a Confederate flag on a workstation.

The men filed a complaint with the EEOC after the plant’s HR department closed an investigation of the incidents without interviewing the alleged harassers. The HR department took no further action on the complaint due to “insufficient evidence.”

In addition to $385,000 in lost wages and emotional distress damages for the former employees, the companies agreed to revise company policies and train employees on the prevention and reporting of racial harassment. They also agreed to establish and implement company policies to ensure a prompt and thorough investigation of future complaints of racial harassment or discrimination.

The outcome of this lawsuit illustrates the unwanted consequences that companies face if they fail to take complaints of racial harassment seriously and allow them to permeate the workplace unchecked. Not only does it come at a financial cost in terms of liability, but it also results in negative publicity that could harm the company’s future profits. As a result, companies should routinely take preventative steps to avoid these situations by requiring supervisors and managers to undergo education and training on racial harassment and discrimination.

The other major takeaway from this lawsuit is the nature of the incidents that led to the EEOC suit. Random, unnecessary comments, and offensive drawings in the workplace, can rise to actionable racial harassment, particularly when supervisors tolerate and even participate in the behaviors.

Racial microaggressions that flow freely in the workplace can be difficult to identify and remedy without training and education. This workplace climate also can lead to decreased workplace productivity. The targeted workers can suffer from symptoms like those that arise from post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as mental health issues and physical problems. Having a comprehensive system in place to address institutional racism, race-based assumptions, and stereotyping can go a long way to focus on and eliminate racism in the workplace, boost worker morale, and increase productivity.

Some concrete steps that employers can take to combat racism in the workplace include the following:

  • Establish clear anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies that managers, supervisors, and HR personnel follow;
  • Provide anti-harassment training for workers, managers, and supervisors;
  • Train HR personnel about their roles in taking, investigating, and resolving complaints based on harassment and discrimination;
  • Offer multiple avenues for employees to complain about harassing or discriminatory treatment;
  • Train supervisors and managers to identify and report harassment or discrimination, even if the targeted employee files no complaint; and
  • Implement procedures to take immediate action to handle complaints of harassment or discrimination.