Acme elected not to participate in the current recession, or at least to a lesser degree than many of its high-tech West Coast contemporaries. Part of the reason was that Acme doesn’t want to grow just for the sake of growth. Instead, it held back on expansion and put its resources into bringing to bear those best practices we’ve heard too much about recently, and put all its effort into improving its market offerings.
Had the company gotten too large, it would have become bureaucratic and more difficult to steer. At a manageable size, it offered certain perks lacking in mainstream manufacturing plants. Each month included at least one long weekend. New employees start with three weeks of paid vacation. The plant shuts down for the entire month of August. Most employees work while listening to their choice of media and content through a variety of personal audio gadgets. Acme wants its employees to be content while they conquer the marketplace.
One such happy camper is Mary Munthomae, who has been with the company for nearly a decade. Rather than work at her family’s restaurant, she wanted her own career. An aptitude for esoteric mathematics earned her a quality-control position, where she specialized in statistical process control. People bring freshly fabricated piece parts to her workstation for evaluation and she likes being “the decider.”
One of the employees shuttling parts from the production line to Mary’s inspection department is Loh Ren Jai Toos, a young, female Asian immigrant. Her role is constrained to being a gofer because she has a limited proficiency in the English language. Like so many immigrants before, her thought is that one can best learn English by watching television and listening to radio broadcasts. That’s why she walks around with wires connecting her ears to the music player in her pocket, singing along much too loudly with what’s being played. Even when Loh isn’t singing, anyone standing nearby can hear the tinny buzz from her ear plugs.
Her choice of genre is rap and she mimics the music quite nicely, racial epithets and all. Mary tried to explain to Loh that, in this country, the words in those songs are considered offensive and that she should stop using them in the plant, if not stop using them entirely. But, Mary found it difficult to communicate with Loh. Oddly, Loh came away from these encounters happier because she got some kind of reaction from Mary about the music. After a while, Loh began using the various epithets independently of the songs whenever she interacted with Mary.
Mary then went to Herman Dibble, her manager, to complain about Loh’s playlist, the volume at which those rap songs are played, and Loh’s insistence on singing along with them. Mary also complained about Loh using racially offensive words and phrases in the course of their work-related interactions.
At first, Mary thought Herman seemed genuinely concerned. He was glad to learn that Mary had already confronted Loh about the matter. But, he admitted, with his syrupy Southern drawl, Herman also found it extraordinarily difficult to communicate with Loh because of her limited vocabulary, high-pitched voice, mispronunciations and heavy Asian accent. A conversation with Loh left him exhausted within five minutes because of the hand waving and finger pointing that was necessary to get his message across.
And things at the plant went on as before. Mary tried to avoid Loh, but that was difficult. Mary snapped at Loh a few times, but any sort of reaction seemed to be the psychic reward Loh was seeking. After a month or two, Mary began to feel that Herman was ignoring her complaint. After all, he made no attempt to discuss her complaint with Loh or to discipline Loh. It seemed like Herman was hoping the entire matter would simply blow away.
An exasperated Mary then went over Herman’s head and took her complaint to the plant manager’s office in hopes of getting past the secretary’s desk to have someone stop the rap music, Loh’s awful singing and her insulting language. That got her some action, but not exactly what she expected.
Two days later, Herman changed Mary’s start time to minimize the potential for interaction between Mary and Loh. It took Mary less than a week to realize this solution posed problems. For one thing, Mary was the primary caregiver for her invalid widowed father. Her new working hours made it difficult to leave work on time and still have time to escort her dad to his doctor appointments. Mary approached Herman again to explain why his solution isn’t working. When Herman started making excuses, Mary demanded that he do something to stop, once and for all, Loh’s outrageous behavior.
About a month later, Mary and another employee were laid off, both at the recommendation of their respective supervisors. The only difference between the two was that the other employee was recalled within 13 weeks. But that was sufficient time for Mary to file suit against Acme for racial harassment and retaliatory discharge.
How could this situation have been avoided? Should portable music devices be allowed in the workplace? Should English proficiency be a condition of employment? Should proficiency in a foreign language be part of a supervisor’s job description? Should profanity be cause for discipline? How should we define offensive language? Does having too many workplace perks lead to aberrant employee behavior?
An attorney says:
Many employers either ban radio playing or require employees to wear ear plugs so the choice of music does not disturb coworkers in the workplace. In all likelihood, the “buzz” emanating from Loh’s earplugs wouldn’t have been offensive to Mary, or at least not as offensive as her bellowing the objectionable lyrics. Other employers have solved the audio problem by allowing workers, in turn, to select from pre-approved radio stations. Like so many problems in the workplace, this one normally can be solved by effective employer-employee communication.