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Workplace harassment, not N-word, is problem

By Fannie Flono
Associate Editor
Jack Betts
Fannie Flono writes on news, politics and life in The Carolinas. Her column appears on the Editorial pages of The Charlotte Observer.

So I read the Paula Deen deposition – all 149 pages.

I wanted to see for myself what all the fuss was about. Surely, it had to be about more than her long ago use of the N-word.

It was.

Deen does not come off looking good in this deposition. But it’s not because of her too cavalier admission that she once – maybe more than once – used a racial slur.

That can be forgiven.

No, the deposition offers a more plausible reason why companies are running from her like she’s doused with toxic chemicals. Her big problem may not be the N-word; and not the R-word – racist – either, a characterization which she and her fans, blacks and whites, deny. The deposition homes in on the D-word and the H-word: Discrimination and harassment.

Media attention has almost exclusively focused on Deen’s potty-mouth and racially insensitive utterances, from the past and more recently. That’s delicious fun for some to read about and use to skewer Deen. But she tearfully and rightly points out that we all have said things that were unseemly or that we should not have. Who among us should cast the first stone at her for being human in that regard?

Yet the lawsuit for which she was being deposed last month was about present-day workplace activities for which Deen bears some responsibility. The suit alleges racial and sexual harassment and discrimination at Uncle Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House. It was filed by former Uncle Bubba’s general manager Lisa Jackson, who is white by the way. Jackson contends that she was the victim of sexual harassment from Earl “Bubba” Hiers, Deen’s brother who runs the restaurant, and that there was a persistent pattern of racial discrimination in the workplace during her five years there. Deen is named as a defendant in the $1.2 million suit along with Hiers because, as Deen acknowledges in the deposition, Uncle Bubba’s is part of Paula Deen Enterprises.

Deposition’s disturbing contradictions

The deposition is full of seeming contradictions. Deen denied not only having any knowledge of racial and sexual harassment at Uncle Bubba’s and of Hiers’ exhibiting inappropriate behavior in the workplace but said he simply wouldn’t do it because “he’s not that kind of person.”

But elsewhere in the deposition she acknowledges that Karl Schumacher, who helped Deen and Hiers start their restaurants and oversees operations, did tell her about problems with Hiers. She said she “can’t recall” whether Hiers displayed pornography in the workplace, one of the accusations against him.

Deen dismissed Schumacher’s concerns as jealousy over not being named a partner in her business. Yet he wasn’t the only one to relay information about Hiers’ behavior. A consulting firm was hired to evaluate conditions at Uncle Bubba’s. The consultants echoed Shumacher’s and Jackson’s concerns about Hiers, according to the deposition. Lawyers for Jackson asked Deen: “You recall that in that report one of the things they said was that Miss Jackson probably had fodder for her own EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) charge?”

Deen’s answer: “I didn’t find out that until way after the fact.”

That response seems to indicate she did know at some point about the charges. But she later says she didn’t. She didn’t read the report from the consultants, though she had it and they had talked to her about the specifics and noted that employees other than Jackson had complaints.

A lot of this is excruciating reading because Deen clearly loves her brother and goes through some gyrations not to say anything bad about him. She says he might tell an off-color joke – “we have all told off-color jokes,” she said – but not with the intent to offend. “Did I think Bubba was doing everything spot on?” she asked. “No, I didn’t think that. But was he as bad as what they were trying to make out? No, I know my brother better than that.”

In the end, Deen chalked up every complaint about her brother’s behavior in the workplace to people being jealous, gullible, greedy or just wrong. Even the report from consultants’ she acknowledges hiring did not get her to change that view.

A determination on the facts of this lawsuit is now in the hands of the legal system. But Deen might have been able to save herself all this public angst and loss of profits if she had not been so quick to dismiss concerns several people raised.

Deen flummoxed about harassment

Sexual and racial harassment and discrimination are serious charges. They create hostile work environments and should never, ever be tolerated.

Such behavior is also illegal. Disappointingly, Deen’s deposition answers show she has little knowledge of what constitutes harassment. As head of a multi-million dollar enterprise, she should.

In 2011 (the latest figures on the EEOC website), more than 11,000 sexual harassment charges were filed with the EEOC. Twenty-six percent (3,378) were resolved with favorable outcomes to those making the charges with monetary settlements of more than $52 million. In 2012 (also the latest on the EEOC website), 33,512 racial harassment/discriminations charges were filed with 15 percent (5,744) resolved in favor of those making charges and with settlements of over $100 million.

Proving racial or sexual harassment can be difficult, as these figures show. Two Supreme Court decisions this week will make that even more difficult, some worker advocates say. One ruling narrows who can be sued for harassment. The other ruling creates a tougher standard for employees to prove that they had faced illegal retaliation for complaining about employment discrimination.

Yet, the kind of behavior the EEOC says constitutes harassment is exactly what Bubba Hiers is accused of. In the case of sexual harassment, that involves “verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.” Racial harassment occurs, the EEOC notes, “when a person or group repeatedly uses discriminatory remarks, behaviors or practices to show racial intolerance against a co-worker or their color, descent, culture, language or religion. For example: Making jokes, insinuations, humiliating comments or racially oriented remarks.” And the EEOC says “the victim does not have to be the person harassed but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.”

If these conditions do exist at Uncle Bubba’s, Deen had – and still has – the power to address them. She acknowledges that in the deposition. If there’s another “apology” interview, I hope the interviewer will move past the fixation on the inconsequential and ask her some substantive questions about that.

Email: fflono@charlotteobserver.com.
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