Under Title VII, single acts of verbal abuse typically do not rise to the level of legally actionable harassment. Only when these behaviors are repeated over a discrete period of time will courts consider them to create a hostile and offensive work environment. Over the past several years, several federal courts have speculated whether this principle holds true when African-American employees are called the “n-word.” These judges have speculated that use of this term is so offensive and racially charged that even a single use could create a hostile environment.
Last month, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals rejected this reasoning, holding that one use of this term was not sufficient to constitute racial harassment. In Nichols v. Mich. City Plant Planning Dept., the plaintiff alleged that a co-worker used this term in the midst of an argument between the two employees. The court said that there is no set number of times a phrase must be used before such use crosses the harassment threshold. However, the Seventh Circuit cited older precedent confirming that a single use will not meet this test.
This case appears to reject contentions that the use of this term has changed in recent years to impose a new degree of harm to employees exposed to it. This case involved alleged co-worker harassment, and the Seventh Circuit did not address whether its analysis would be different if the term was directed at an employee by his or her supervisor. While employers should never tolerate use of this language in the workplace, this decision indicates that a single utterance will not result in legal liability for offensive environment harassment.