Human Resources Failure at Austal USA

Austal, USA’s Mobile, Alabama former Human Resources manager, has some explaining to do. Beverly Thomas, a former Austal USA employee, is seeking an unspecified amount of money at trial this week in federal court. She alleges extreme racial tensions in the workplace, complete with racist graffiti.

The former Human Resources manager in the hot-seat, is Jeff O’Dell. O’Dell wasn’t available to testify, so attorney’s used sworn testimony gathered from a previous deposition.

O’Dell’s testimony seems to provide ammo for both sides, depending on how you spin it. O’Dell testified that he was suspicious that black employees were responsible for the racist graffiti themselves. The fact that the incidents of racist graffiti, and in some cases nooses hung up, increased after some black workers filed-suit against the company, seems to draw Austal to the conclusion that it’s likely the black workers who were responsible for the incidents. That might be wishful thinking on the part of Austal USA and seems like an arbitrary finding.

Personally, I think that piece of testimony could support either sides case. It could also be argued as evidence that O’Dell was either insensitive to racial issues himself, or overly dismissive of the complex matter of racism in the workplace. It seems that appropriate measures were not taken to find who was actually behind the graffiti and nooses. If anything, it supports the fact that there were disturbing racial tensions present.   To automatically jump to the conclusion that African American employees may have been responsible for the graffiti, when the law-suits could have just as easily incited a racist white person to act in such a way, seems arbitrary and questionable.

O’Dell on racist graffiti in the workplace:

“When didn’t I learn about it? I mean, it was always a problem. … It’s a very rough place to work.”

If that’s not evidence that this guy needed to take a racial sensitivity training class, I don’t know what is. Something tells me O’Dell was never HR certified.

The new Human Resources Director, Terri Lindley, tried to set things straight for Austal USA by touting their by-the-book procedures for racial discrimination, and their “open-door” human resources management policy. Unfortunately, Lindley also admitted this policy didn’t require HR managers to document all incidents, making it virtually impossible to track incidents, or follow through with disciplinary actions. In addition, Lindley testified the executives, managers and coordinators at Austal USA in Mobile, Alabama, were all white, which only adds fuel to the questions surrounding this case.

This whole mess could have been avoided with proper HR procedures and policies. If every instance of racism in the work-place had been documented, and disciplinary actions had been taken, Austal, USA would most-likely not have been liable. That’s why it’s so important for HR professionals to take racial complaints and incidents seriously. Not only does it avoid everyone working in a dysfunctional environment full of racist tensions, but it can potentially save the company millions of dollars in racial discrimination law-suits. The same issues can arise with homophobia, sexism and all forms of discrimination.  This reminds us as HR professionals to have a policy in place, review and update it periodically, and ensure that it is enforced!  Having these basic policies in place will ensure a more harmonious, safe, and thriving workplace.

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