Can You Be Fired for Ignorant Thoughtlessness ?

In Poplin v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, 690 A.2d 781 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1997), the claimant, while preparing a work schedule, came across two names beginning with the letter "K" and stated in the presence of a black co-worker, "one more K and we could have the Ku Klux Klan here." Id. at 782-83. When the black co-worker put his head down on a desk, the claimant realized that her comment had offended him. The claimant apologized because "you're not supposed to say anything in front of a black." Id. at 785 (Friedman, J., dissenting). The claimant then asked the co-worker "if he wished that he was white." Id. at 783. The co-worker responded "No," left work early and reported the incident to the employer. Id. The employer fired the claimant, and the claimant applied for unemployment benefits, which were denied. This court held that the comments did not rise to the level of willful misconduct, explaining: By this decision we do not mean to suggest that employers should tolerate or condone racial insensitivity. Promoting, indeed insisting, upon cooperation and understanding among racially diverse employees is indispensable to a productive and harmonious work place. However, this must be accomplished by making appropriate standards of expected conduct clear, and enforcing those standards firmly and fairly. Having left employees with no guidance as to what is expected of them in this regard, employers may not equate ignorant thoughtlessness with willful misconduct. This is not only counterproductive, but contrary to the terms of the Unemployment Compensation Law. Id. at 784.