By now, almost everyone has heard about the atrocious racist rant by Donald Sterling, the owner (soon to be former owner) of the Los Angeles Clippers. Sterling’s public reaction to these comments going viral is just as reprehensible.
On the other hand, the NBA Commissioner’s response was a timely and appropriate corporate response:
The views expressed by Mr. Sterling are deeply offensive and harmful; that they came from an NBA owner only heightens the damage and my personal outrage. Sentiments of this kind are contrary to the principles of inclusion and respect that form the foundation of our diverse, multicultural and multiethnic league. I am personally distraught that the views expressed by Mr. Sterling came from within an institution that has historically taken such a leadership role in matters of race relations and caused current and former players, coaches, fans and partners of the NBA to question their very association with the league….
The debate goes on about whether the NBA has authority to act in this situation given that Sterling’s comments were made privately. In today’s society, there are very few conversations that are truly private, especially for someone of Sterling’s stature. Robin Shea of Employment and Labor Insider recently authored a terrific post on the rule about being judicious “when emailing, posting, or tweeting, or having a love spat an[d] argument with the ‘archivist’”.
In the employment context, comments made in private can and do carry over into the workplace. Most racial harassment cases involve harassment by coworkers, vendors, salespeople or other third parties who are known to throw around racist and totally inappropriate comments outside of work. A diligent employer needs to be aware of the potential for racial harassment and make sure that its policies and actions are designed to prevent and correct any harassment on the shop floor and throughout the workplace. If such harassment does occur, a timely and appropriate response is critical. In this regard, the NBA Commissioner was right on the mark.