Home Depot forced a worker to quit after he wore a slogan supporting the Black Lives Matter movement on his apron, and it threatened to punish other employees who tried to bring attention to racial harassment, according to a complaint issued by an office of the National Labor Relations Board.
The federal agency accused the company of discriminating against the employee, who worked in a Home Depot store in Minneapolis, for wearing the slogan and for talking to other employees and managers at the store about racial harassment there.
“Issues of racial harassment directly impact the working conditions of employees,” said Jennifer Hadsall, the regional director of the Minneapolis office of the NLRB, which filed the complaint.
The National Labor Relations Act “protects employees’ rights to raise these issues with the goal of improving their working conditions,” she said in a statement from the board. “It is this important right we seek to protect in this case.”
Home Depot said the NLRB’s complaint “misrepresents the relevant facts” and that the company was “fully committed to diversity and respect for all people.”
“The Home Depot does not tolerate workplace harassment of any kind and takes all reports of discrimination or harassment seriously, as we did in this case,” Sara Gorman, a spokesperson for the company, said in an email. “We disagree with the characterization of this situation and look forward to sharing the facts during the NLRB’s process.”
After the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 by the Minneapolis police, companies such as Nike, Twitter and Citigroup aligned themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement. The show of public support was a shift from the more careful stances that many corporations — fearful of taking a political position that could offend customers — took in the past.
But other companies have dress codes that prohibit employees from showing unauthorized logos or buttons, or have been accused of penalizing those who do. Whole Foods has been sued by employees who said they were punished for wearing apparel that supported Black Lives Matter.
In June 2020, Home Depot released a statement denouncing the deaths of Floyd and “other unarmed Black men and women in our country.”
“We cannot ignore that their deaths are part of a pattern of racism and reflect the harsh reality that as a nation we are much too far from fulfilling the promise of equal justice for all,” Craig Menear, the CEO of Home Depot, said at the time.
Home Depot has in recent years tried to distance itself from political positions. In 2019, after a co-founder, Bernie Marcus, expressed his support for President Donald Trump, a spokesperson noted that Marcus had retired and said that, “as a standard practice, the company does not endorse presidential candidates.”
Home Depot’s dress code forbids employees to display “causes or political messages unrelated to workplace matters” on their aprons or work clothes, according to the complaint by Hadsall. The dress code is not unlawful, according to the NLRB.
But the agency said the company violated the National Labor Relations Act because it enforced the dress code against an employee who wore a Black Lives Matter logo in an attempt to bring attention to racial discrimination and harassment at the store.
The employee’s name was redacted, and the complaint did not provide details about the discrimination that he described.
The employee began wearing the Black Lives Matter logo on his apron last August and started talking to co-workers and managers about “subjects such as ongoing discrimination and harassment,” the complaint said.
Sometime this year, the company told the employee he had to stop wearing the logo or leave. He refused and was suspended. According to the complaint, the company then repeated its demand: Stop wearing the logo or quit.
In February, the company threatened employees “with unspecified consequences” if they “engaged in protected concerted activities regarding racial harassment,” the complaint stated.
The threats were made during a meeting in an office inside the store and through a video call, according to the complaint.
The Minneapolis field office of the NLRB, which reports to the labor board’s general counsel, will take the complaint before an administrative law judge in October if Home Depot does not settle with the employee.
If the judge rules in favor of the worker, Home Depot can appeal to the full board, which is separate from the general counsel’s office and judges cases. If the full board rules against Home Depot, the company can ask the court of appeals to hear the case.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.