The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination has made clear yet again the risks employers face when they tolerate even seemingly innocent forms of workplace discrimination. This time, it awarded nearly $400,000 in back wages and emotional damages to a woman who was the brunt of jokes about her age and disability.
The illegal conduct apparently began with the company’s owner, who referred to the victim as the “old cripple.” The employee had experienced remarks like that at a prior job in which she’d worked with the owner, so it appears the comments themselves were not considered offensive. Still, the MCAD found, the owner opened the door to other, more insidious forms of discrimination. An office manager referred to the victim as an “old bag,” and younger women in the office delighted in embarrassing her by discussing their sexual escapades and viewing pornography at work. Eventually, those younger women decided they did not want to work with the victim, whom they considered too old and prudish, and she suffered from hostility that included effort to persuade her to retire.
The lesson here is one all Massachusetts employers should have long ago learned: when it comes to age, gender, race, etc., not even jokes at work are okay, even if those participating seem to do so willingly. No such conduct should be tolerated, and managers must be trained to understand basic discrimination issues, identify potentially improper conduct, and address issues effectively.