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Foul Play

Battling hostilities in the workplace.

An anonymous note filled with racial hatred shows up on an employee's desk. A worker persists in making sexually explicit "jokes" in front of co-workers. Another employee's language is sprinkled with cruel comments about workers of certain ethnic groups. What do you do? And don't say it can't happen in your company.

"These incidents are very common," says Ann Mennell, an employment-law attorney with Foley & Lardner in Milwaukee. Just as there is still plenty of bigotry in our communities, there are volumes of race and gender hostilities in the workplace.

"Prejudice still exists, and it shows up frequently in businesses," agrees Louis Penner, a psychology professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, who has extensively researched bigotry and sexism in the workplace.

Learning to deal with these issues is critical to creating a workplace that is comfortable--and therefore productive--for employees. An all-too-common reaction, and one that often creates bigger problems down the road, is shrugging off such incidents. "That's the usual managerial response: They ignore the behavior and hope it goes away. But it rarely does," says Cindy Berryman-Fink, a professor of communications at the University of Cincinnati and author of The Manager's Desk Reference (Amacom Books).

Beyond the psychological damage your negligence may cause, burying your head in the sand can cost your business big bucks. "Employees are ever more aware of their legal rights," says Mennell. "And more and more lawsuits will be filed in cases where workers claim to have been harassed on the job."

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This article was originally published in the October 1997 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Foul Play.

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