The New York Times has reportedly launched an investigation into the alleged use of a homophobic epithet by a senior editor, potentially tarnishing the paper's reputation as a progressive, accepting workplace and raising questions about when, where and by whom such slurs can be used on the job.
Though the Times would not comment, sources at the paper confirmed to ABCNEWS.com that the company had taken measures to figure out whether Michelle McNally, an assistant managing editor and the director of photography, called a photo editor "fag" or "faggot" at a party celebrating the paper's move to new offices last month.
"It's our practice not to comment on personnel matters. I can tell you the matter is closed," wrote Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis in an e-mail to ABCNEWS.com.
In an internal company memo obtained by the New York Post, Times management reminded staffers Wednesday of the paper's discrimination policy, writing: "From time to time, the company likes to remind employees of its various policies. … We encourage you to read it, which features guidelines on what to do if you have a complaint, or receive one."
A New York Times staffer familiar with the company's diversity policies told ABCNEWS.com that "some people are very upset by this," but that the incident "was an unusual situation" given the paper's reputation as a "welcoming, diverse workplace."
According to the Human Rights Campaign, the Times scored 100 out of 100 on its corporate responsibility index, a measure the group uses to rate companies on their treatment of gay employees.
"The Times is emblematic of the progress of accepting gay people on the job, but it may also be emblematic of the progress that needs to be made," said Daryl Herrschaft, director of HRC's Workplace Project.
"Offensive words like that epithet should not be used in any workplace setting," Herrschaft told ABCNEWS.com. "Most gay people can tell you if the word was used in a malicious way or if it was banter among friends. #&0133 But on the whole, in a workplace setting, the word should not be used," he said.
Human resources experts agreed that while the use of slurs may be acceptable among members of a particular minority group or between friends, they were generally best left out of the office, including the office party.
"In general, any racial, ethnic or other slur is intolerable in the workplace. It's especially maddening when offensive words are used with the intent to insult someone — even when employees say they're only joking or didn't mean any harm," said Tory Johnson, ABC's workplace contributor and CEO of Women for Hire.
"While such jokes and language have no place at work, intent matters. There are times when even the most innocent among us inadvertently use a word or phrase without the intention of insulting or harming anyone.
Johnson explained. "However, it's often difficult to determine when or if the intent was to get a laugh and raise eyebrows … or if it was truly an unintentional slight. Since there's too much opportunity for misinterpretation, employers must adhere to zero tolerance policies."
"No definitive numbers are kept on how many gay people experience harassment at work," in part, said the HRC's Herrschaft, because "it still remains legal in 31 states to fire someone because they are gay. Incidents of reported cases are low and many go unreported."
That the offending comment was allegedly made at a party, at which alcohol was served, makes little difference, said Jennifer Loftus, national director of Astron Solutions and a professor of human resources at Pace University.
Nevertheless, more gay people are reporting incidents of harassment because they feel more comfortable about being open about their sexuality, said Loftus.
"The more something becomes accepted or familiar, the more people report harassment claims. It follows that as people become more proud or are out, they are more likely to point to something at work and say, 'This is harassment.' It is not unlike what occurred in the past with race and gender harassment," she said.
The controversy at the Times comes on the heels of the highly publicized firing of Isaiah Washington. The star of ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" was sacked last month after he twice used a homophobic slur when talking about gay co-star T.R. Knight.
"Harassment only makes the headlines when public figures are involved," said Herrschaft. "But it happens in Hollywood, in the media, in large and small companies and on the factory floor. As the Times case proves, it still also happens where we least expect it."