SEATTLE - One of the Western United States' largest sports retailers, Big 5 Sporting Goods, violated federal law when it allowed ongoing racial harassment, including death threats, and retaliatory discipline against a black manager trainee at its Oak Harbor, Wash., store, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charged in a lawsuit filed today.
Robert Sanders was the only African-American employee at Big 5's location on Whidbey Island. According to the EEOC's investigation, the store manager and various assistant managers called Sanders "spook," "boy" and "King Kong" and told him that he had the "face of a janitor." The agency found that even though Sanders repeatedly reported this conduct to upper management, the company failed to act and Sanders instead faced escalated harassment as well as retaliation in the form of increased workloads, denial of breaks, and unwarranted discipline. After he was forced to take several leaves due to stress, one assistant manager told Sanders, "We will hang you, we will seriously lynch you if you call in again this week." Another assistant manager asked Sanders if he was "ready to commit suicide," offering "assistance" when he was ready to do so.
"I came prepared to work hard and put in my dues to become a manager," Sanders said. "But I was met with comments about my race: 'You're the perfect definition of 'spook' because your skin is so dark, but your teeth are so white.' And it went downhill from there, to being taunted by another manager trainee about 'ending up in a river, dead.' Whidbey Island is a small place, and I didn't want to leave my house. I felt like Big 5 took away my ability to not just succeed at work, but to simply live my life with dignity and without fear."
Racial harassment and retaliation violate Title VII of Civil Rights Act of 1964. After first attempting to reach a prelitigation settlement through its conciliation process, the EEOC filed its lawsuit (EEOC v. Big 5 Sporting Goods Corp., Civil Number 2:17-CV-01098.) in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington. The EEOC seeks monetary damages for the employee, as well as injunctive relief to remedy and prevent harassment and retaliation in the workplace.
EEOC Trial Attorney Carmen Flores said, "Mr. Sanders simply wanted to come to work and earn a living. Instead, his promising career opportunity was poisoned by hate and threats from his managers and coworkers. I hope that our lawsuit in this case will send a message to all employers that they need to take swift action when alerted to workplace harassment."
Nancy Sienko, field director for the Seattle office of the EEOC's San Francisco District, added, "The delay by Big 5 to take action to investigate and stop the racial harassment and retaliation is inexcusable. The slurs and threats that Mr. Sanders faced have a terrible history and should never be tolerated. It is the employer's responsibility to ensure that all employees can work in a safe environment free from racial hostility so they can succeed to their highest potential."
Big 5 Sporting Goods is headquartered in El Segundo, Calif., and operated 433 stores as of Jan. 1, 2017, with9,000 full-time employees.
The EEOC advances opportunity in the workplace by enforcing federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. More information is available at www.eeoc.gov. Stay connected with the latest EEOC news by subscribing to our email updates.