Novellus Systems, Inc. agreed to pay $168,000 to settle race harassment and retaliation claims brought by an African-American employee who complained that he was subjected to racist rapping by a co-worker.

Michael Cooke alleged that the co-worker routinely listened to — and rapped along with – music prominently featuring racial epithets including the N-word.  According to the EEOC, Cooke complained to supervisors that the music was offensive but the co-worker kept rapping and the company failed to take necessary corrective action for more than a year.

“The EEOC is not in the business of judging anyone’s musical tastes, but we are concerned when we find that an employer failed to respond promptly after being put on notice of racially offensive language or conduct in the workplace,” said Regional Attorney William Tamayo.

The settlement was part of a two-year consent decree under which the company agreed to adopt a zero-tolerance harassment policy and to specifically identify offensive music as a potential form of harassment in the policy. 

“We commend the company for resolving this action and for agreeing to modify its anti-discrimination policies,” said Tamayo.

The Lesson

In commenting on lessons employers might glean from this case, EEOC District Director Michael Baldonado said:  “How do you manage the culture clash — across generations, race and ethnicity, you name it — in a workplace that gets more diverse every day?  I think it’s critical to try to put yourself into the shoes of the other person and take all complaints of discrimination seriously.  Together we can try to defuse tensions and prevent situations from developing into discrimination and harassment.”

Well said.