There is an insurance company commercial that points out “that words can hurt you” despite an old saying. A company in Illinois found that out the hard way this is a true statement, in this particular case the word “cripple.” Their lesson cost them $15,000.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) brought suit against a house cleaning company on behalf of an employee who was unable to walk with a “normal” gait they had as a result of a stroke. An officer of the company harassed the employee and according to a bulletin by the EEOC “the officer referred to the employee as ‘a cripple,’ mockingly imitated the way she walks, and told her that she was being a ‘hysterical basket case’ when she objected. The officer also reportedly asked the employee, ‘Are you crippled?’”
According to the EEOC this was a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act by both the harassing nature of the behavior and the illegal inquiry into the nature of the disability. According to the bulletin “The ADA prohibits subjecting an employee to harassment because of her disability. It also prohibits making disability-related inquiries of any employee – whether disabled or not – unless the inquiry is job-related and justified by a business need.”
Many people have found out recently language can be considered to be hurtful. The word “retard”, when directed to an individual or group of people, has caused some celebrities to backtrack and apologize for the use of the word. The EEOC points out that “cripple” is a similar word. “When directed at an individual with a physical disability, ‘cripple’ is a profoundly offensive and degrading epithet,” said John Hendrickson, the EEOC’s regional attorney in Chicago. He points out “All employees have the right to work in an environment free from discriminatory insults and ridicule – and that includes employees with disabilities.”
The resulting $15,000 settlement was not the only cost to the employee. They also have to train all employees and managers on the provisions of the ADAAA as well as having to engage in recordkeeping and reporting for a period of three years. In addition there was all the bad publicity in the Chicago area where the company’s customer base is. I don’t know but there might even have been some action taken against the officer.
Lessons for employers
The behavior of the officer was certainly unacceptable. The company tried to defend itself by saying it didn’t occur that much. The EEOC, however, said even one time was too much. It shows that perhaps some training would have been a good preventive measure. Training in civility would have been good too. You need to make it clear to people that degrading employees is not good employee relations. You do not get employee engagement from degradation. So monitor behavior, correct it when you see it or hear of it, and constantly remind people that good behavior is always much better.