Q. What is workplace discrimination, and is it legal?
A. To “discriminate” against someone means to treat a person differently—less favorably—for any reason. But federal law prohibits employers from discriminating against their employees on the basis of race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, disability, age (for employees 40 and older), or genetic information.
Q. What is workplace harassment?
A. Harassment is unwelcome conduct based on any of the above qualities. It is a form of discrimination. Harassment becomes unlawful under federal law when putting up with the harassment becomes a condition of employment (as in, you will be fired if you complaint or protest the harassment), or if the harassment is severe and pervasive enough to create work environment a reasonable person would find intimidating, hostile, or abusive.
Q. Does the law protect me from discrimination and harassment?
A. Title VII gives employees who have suffered discrimination and harassment the right to file a legal claim against their employers.
Q. How bad does harassment need to be before I can do something about it?
A. If you are being harassed, you shouldn’t wait to speak to your boss or to human resources. Legally, however, minor isolated incidents are unlikely to give you a claim against your employer. If those small incidents continue, however, become a regular part of your work life, and create a hostile environment, then the harassment has become unlawful.
Q. What if my harasser is a coworker, rather than my boss or supervisor? Am I still protected?
A. If your harasser is a coworker, your employer may still be liable if your employer knew or should have known you were being harassed and failed to do anything about it.
Q. What should I do if I have been discriminated against or harassed because of my race, sex, age, or religion?
A. If you are discriminated against or harassed in your place of work, you should first report this to your human resources department or to your supervisor. If your harasser is your supervisor, you should go above this person’s head, to the person next up on the corporate ladder. Your next step should be to file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. An EEOC charge is a necessary step to any further legal action.
Q. Would it be better to quit?
A. As with all things, it depends. Practically, for your quality of life, you may want to escape harassment by finding another job, but that might not be an option for you if you work in a small field or simply have too many people who depend on you to be without an income, even briefly. If quitting is an option for you, you should understand that it will impact any legal claim you might want to bring. Quitting because your work environment became intolerable is called “constructive discharge”—i.e., your employer made or allowed your workplace to become so hostile that no reasonable person would have stayed. This is a difficult thing to prove, but if you can do it, the law treats you as if you were improperly fired. If you can’t show this, then proving you were hurt by your employer’s discrimination or harassment will be more difficult.
If you have a potential workplace discrimination or harassment claim, our legal counsel can help you understand your options and your rights. Don’t delay in finding representation, you can contact us here.
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