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A black employee, Milferd McGhee, discovered a noose at the Baton Rouge plant in January 2020 and reported it, a lawsuit filed on Thursday said.

Exxon failed to prevent the harassment, as another noose was found in December 2020, the lawsuit alleged.

It was the fifth noose to be discovered at the plant from 2016 to 2020.

The lawsuit – filed by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) – alleges the oil giant violated federal law by investigating some but not all of the incidents involving nooses at the Baton Rouge chemical plant, leading to “a racially hostile work environment”.

“A noose is a longstanding symbol of violence associated with the lynching of African Americans,” said Elizabeth Owen, an attorney with the EEOC in New Orleans. “Such symbols are inherently threatening and significantly alter the workplace environment for black Americans.”

When employers become aware of racially offensive or threatening behaviour in the workplace, they have “a legal obligation to take prompt, remedial action aimed at stopping it,” said Rudy Sustaita, an attorney with the EEOC’s Houston, Texas office.

In a statement, Exxon Mobil said it disagreed with the EEOC’s findings and allegations, arguing it “encourage[d] employees to report claims like this, and we thoroughly investigated”.

“We have a zero tolerance policy of any form of harassment or discrimination in the workplace by or towards employees, contractors, suppliers or customers,” said Todd Spitler, a spokesperson for the company.

The first incident took place in April 2016, when an employee at the chemical plant reported a rope tied into a hangman’s noose hanging from a scaffold, leading two contractors to be banned from the worksite.

Since then, four other instances of nooses were reported at the site, but Exxon failed on multiple occasions to complete all recommended measures to prevent future racial discrimination, the EEOC claimed.

The lawsuit seeks to ban Exxon from discriminating against its employees on the basis of race and to require the company to provide programs that promote equal employment opportunities.

It also seeks to make Mr. McGhee – who has worked at the plant since 2010 – “whole” by giving him compensation for the emotional pain, suffering and humiliation he experienced as a result of the incident.

The lawsuit comes after several nooses were also discovered at an Amazon fulfilment centre construction site in 2021, as well as one at the construction site of the Obama Presidential Centre in Chicago in 2022.

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