Ferguson, Missouri remains in the news, with the arrest on Sunday of a suspect in the shooting of two police officers. The shooting came on the heels of a report released by the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) that concluded that the Ferguson Police Department routinely violated the civil rights of black residents. While many of us, thankfully, do not work in an environment like Ferguson – the recent reports contain important reminders as to the boundaries of acceptable behavior in any workplace.
The New York Times noted that, among the findings in the report, it was revealed that a number of Ferguson employees exchanged racial emails and jokes.
The DOJ report stated that, “[o]ur investigation uncovered direct evidence of racial bias in the communication of influential Ferguson decision-makers…. Several court and law enforcement personnel expressed discriminatory views and intolerance, with regard to race, religion and national origin.”
The Times reported that two long term police supervisors were forced to resign, and one senior court employee was terminated, due to their involvement with these emails.
The two supervisors, Capt. Rick Henke and Sgt. William Mudd, left the force on March 5, the day after the report was issued, while a third employee, Mary Ann Twitty, clerk of the Municipal Court, was fired on March 4, the day the report was issued, for her role in the emails.
Using their city email accounts, officials exchanged emails which contained brazenly racist “jokes” and comments. A November 2008 email predicted that Barack Obama would not be president for long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years.” Another email in 2010 mocked African Americans using a negative story involving child support. Another email depicted President Obama as a chimpanzee.
In a city where African Americans make up 67% of the population, the attitudes revealed by such email exchanges are disturbing.
What lesson can employers learn from this?
There are many. Fifty years after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act, and after many cases where the damage from such inappropriate emails have been shown, it still seems to happen. It is never too late to remind your staff of the boundaries of acceptable electronic communications, especially on company systems. It also bears noting that even those who are merely the recipients of, or the “forwards” of insensitive or derogatory jokes and emails can be called to account for their behavior. Finally, such communications often are difficult to erase. So, we all should be reminded and learn a lesson from the Ferguson emails.
Barbara Hoey is a partner in the Kelley Drye & Warren LLP’s New York office and chair of the Labor and Employment practice group. She has more than two decades of experience counseling her clients in all areas of employment law and representing them in single-plaintiff and class action litigation.