THE “HEBREW SLAVE” COMMENT
An employee and her supervisor were communicating via e-mail when the employee commented that federal employees generally work shorter hours than private sector ones. The supervisor responded, “Wow,… then I must be a damn fool…cause I’ve been working like Hebrew slave the last 9 years and don’t have enough time to take off…at least somebody got it right.” The employee was offended and soon filed an EEO charge alleging she had been subjected to religious harassment when the supervisor made that comment. The manager claimed it as a joke. But, the EEOC Administrative Judge…
found the comment to be “grossly insensitive, insulting and condescending.” The AJ stated that federal supervisors should know that Jews have been subjected to genocide, anti-Semitism, and slavery, and workplace jesting regarding slavery with reference to a specific protected group which has experienced slavery is “profoundly inappropriate.”
Not satisfied with that conclusion, the full Commission went on to note that “…that the word ‘Hebrew’ is often used to refer to Semitic persons who identify as descendants of Abraham, the biblical patriarch of Judaism, Collins English Dictionary -Complete and Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition available online at hitp://www.dictionary.com/browse/Hebrew. Moreover, when used to generally refer to contemporary Jewish persons, it is sometimes considered archaic or offensive, Id. Coupled with the word ‘slave’ the term ‘Hebrew slave’ is particularly negative and offensive when used so flippantly. As such, we find that the use of the term ‘Hebrew slave’ is inherently unwelcome when uttered in this particular context, especially when communicating with a Jewish person. There is no evidence that Complainant welcomed such a comment. Therefore, we find that Si’s comment was unwelcome.”
EEOC then pointed out that the fact that the supervisor “may have intended his comment to be a joke or a cliché does not soften the offense any more here than it would if he had uttered an equally offensive racial slur.”
The Commission had no problem finding that a “single or limited number of epithets or slurs may constitute harassment…. Although [the supervisor] only made such a comment once, the comment packed a painful, potent punch. Specifically, [the supervisor’s] comment made light of the long and painful history of Jewish persecution and genocide.”
In the end the Commission determined that a reasonable person in the employee’s circumstances would find the supervisor’s comment was severe enough to create a hostile work environment based on her religion and that was religious harassment. It ordered the agency to pay the employee $10,000 for damages and another $10,000 to her attorney. (See Lashawna, Complainant, V. Thomas E. Perez, Secretary, Department of Labor, Agency. EEOC Appeal No. 0720160020 (2017))
We took the time to highlight this new case to make the point that even a single comment, if offensive enough, could be found to violate law and entitle the employee to corrective action. Slurs and epithets are not something to be avoided just because that is politically correct. Avoiding them is also legally correct, and ignoring that rule can get supervisors disciplined or fired.