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The federal government is cracking down on what it calls a disturbing trend in workplace discrimination � the display of nooses to intimidate black employees. During the past decade, more than three dozen lawsuits have been filed against companies for racial harassment involving nooses � nearly a dozen in the past year, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The most recent incident involved Helmerich & Payne International Drilling Co., which on Oct. 25 settled a discrimination lawsuit for $290,000 with seven black workers who reported that hangman nooses were being displayed on their oil rig. The Mississippi lawsuit also alleged race-based name-calling; the settlement requires that Helmerich & Payne conduct anti-discrimination training and post a notice about the settlement. EEOC v. Helmerich & Payne International Drilling Co., No. 3:05-cv-00691-DPJ-JCS (S.D. Miss.). Earlier in October, a noose was found hanging on a black professor’s office door at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York, sparking national headlines. “Shocking as it may be, egregious racial harassment, including hangman nooses, is a workplace reality today,” said EEOC spokesman David Grinberg. “These noose incidents, unfortunately, are not ancient history and employers need to be a lot more vigilant.” Taken as jokes Grinberg said employers aren’t taking noose incidents seriously enough, some of them writing them off as jokes when they learn about them. But policing a work force around the clock and controlling employees’ behavior isn’t an easy task for employers, said Steve Mackey, general counsel for Helmerich & Payne, the oil drilling company that settled the recent noose incident. Mackey defended his client as a company that does not condone racism and has written policies and training seminars that address discrimination and harassment issues. With regard to the noose incident, Mackey stressed that the company admitted no liability in the settlement. He said the company confirmed the presence of one noose on one oil rig, but was never able to determine who the perpetrator was. He noted that the oil rig is open to various employers of different companies as well as visitors. He said the company settled the case because it was less costly than going to trial. “We can’t control from a distance of many thousand miles away the action of each and every employee or visitor,” Mackey said. “The best we can do is have policies against this sort of thing to train our people, and then, hopefully, to have our people and other employees do the right thing.” The oil rig case follows a long line of similar incidents. In September, the EEOC sued a Rochester, N.Y.-based roofing and sheet metal contractor for allegedly subjecting a group of black employees to a hostile work environment. According to the EEOC, a noose was hung at a worksite and a supervisor commented that “every white should have five black slaves.” EEOC v. Elmer W. Davis, No. 07CV6434-CJS (W.D.N.Y.). A month before that lawsuit, the EEOC sued a New Jersey dredging company for allegedly subjecting a black employee to a hostile work environment, which included the hanging of a noose in the boat where the plaintiff worked. EEOC v. Amboy Aggregates, No. 29:363 (D.N.J.). Settlements growing Meanwhile, settlements involving noose incidents topped more than $2 million in the past year, including a $600,000 settlement in January by Pittsburgh’s AK Steel Corp., which was accused of subjecting black workers to a hostile environment, including noose displays. EEOC v. AK Steel Corp., No. 03-517 (W.D. Pa.). Temesha Evans-Davis, a management-side attorney who represents employers in discrimination claims, said the noose incidents are a reminder to employers on the importance of weeding out subtle forms of discrimination “before you get to the noose.” She noted that, while the noose cases came up at a recent breakfast briefing on EEOC initiatives with clients, lawyers’ bigger message to employers was to get rid of the subtle forms of discrimination before egregious conduct occurs. “These subtleties can percolate until you get to the point where you have someone that feels comfortable enough putting a noose in a workplace,” said Davis of the Dallas office of New York-based Epstein Becker & Green.

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