Workplace Discrimination Legal Information

OVERVIEW

Workplace discrimination lawyers help employees who have been singled out for unfair treatment at work because of their membership in certain protected groups. This type of discrimination is illegal under federal and state laws. If you are a victim of illegal discrimination, you have the right to sue your employer for compensation for the losses you suffered. Those losses can be financial, like lost wages, or they can be emotional, like the pain and humiliation of being insulted and harassed at work.

Because workplace discrimination is strongly discouraged by federal law, there is a government agency that helps people who believe they have been discriminated against at work. It’s called the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC. People with workplace discrimination claims often start their cases with the EEOC. However, because the agency can’t take all the cases that come to it, and because the process can be very slow, many people choose to hire an workplace discrimination lawyer instead of or in addition to working with the EEOC.

 

“HOW ARE WORKERS PROTECTED FROM WORKPLACE DISCRIMINATION?”

A series of federal laws protect employees of most businesses and the federal government from discrimination. Employers with more than a few people working for them may not discriminate for any of the following reasons:

  • Race or color
  • Sex or gender
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Disability
  • Age
  • Service in military reserves
  • Family medical needs
  • “Blowing the whistle” on illegal practices by an employer

Laws in most states add protections for state workers and some businesses not covered by federal law. In addition, many states add protections for more types of discrimination.

Workplace discrimination laws protect workers from unfavorable treatment in hiring, firing, job duties, promotions, compensation and discipline based on those categories. Employers may sometimes make decisions based on these categories legally, but only if they can show that they have a good reason. For example, a bus company is free to refuse to hire drivers who are blind.


“WHAT IS SEXUAL HARASSMENT?”

Sexual harassment is a special kind of workplace discrimination based on sex. In sexual harassment, the discrimination is based on unwelcome sexual advances to an employee, requests for sexual favors or verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. It is illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Both men and women can be victims or perpetrators of sexual harassment, and it can happen between all categories of employee, or even between employees and customers. In some cases, employees who were treated unfavorably because of sexual harassment that targets another may also sue.

Sexual harassment is broadly defined, and it can be difficult to pin down which behaviors cross the line. However, there are two major categories of sexual harassment:

  • Quid pro quo, in which the employee is promised a promotion or other favorable treatment, or threatened with firing or other punishments, in exchange for romantic or sexual favors. This is often, but not always, committed by an employee with more power against an employee with less.
  • Hostile work environment, in which unwelcome sexual behaviors or comments in the workplace are so intimidating and offensive that they create a hostile work environment. This can be intentional behaviors, like leaving offensive pornography in an employee’s work area, or unintentional ones that are not corrected.

Sexual harassment explicitly or implicitly affects the worker’s employment status; unreasonably interferes with the worker’s ability to work; or creates a hostile work environment. To win a sexual harassment claim, you must show that the employer knew or should have known about the problem, but didn’t do enough stop it.

 

“WHAT IS RETALIATION?”

Retaliation is the legal name for employment decisions that are meant to punish an employee for complaining about illegal behavior by the employer. Most employment laws include provisions that make it illegal to retaliate against an employee for complaining about discrimination or legal violations. Almost any sort of adverse employment decision could be retaliation, but common forms of retaliation could be:

  • Firing
  • A change in job duties or demotion
  • A pay cut
  • Fewer scheduled hours
  • A transfer to an undesirable location
  • Being passed over for a promotion

Retaliation is usually not explicitly connected to the complaint itself. You will likely have to rely on timing or other aspects of the decision to show the connection between your behavior and the retaliation. You may claim retaliation in addition to or instead of claiming discrimination. In fact, a set of laws called “whistle-blower” laws make it illegal to retaliate against an employee for reporting illegal behavior that’s not discrimination, such as dumping toxic chemicals improperly.

 

“DOES MY EMPLOYMENT CONTRACT OVERRIDE LAWS?”

Employment contracts can’t generally take precedence over federal or state workplace discrimination laws. No matter what you have signed, an employer may not fire you for being a member of a federally protected group, for example. If your contract has illegal provisions, a court will likely find it unfair and refuse to enforce it.

However, employment contracts may trump other laws. If you agreed in writing not to tell your employer’s trade secrets to a competitor, the agreement supersedes your legal right to free speech on that topic. You still have the right to free speech; you’ve just agreed to sign away a small part of that right in exchange for employment. It’s much harder to get a court to decide that this type of provision is unfair.


“WHAT IS ARBITRATION?”

Arbitration is a practice included in many employment contracts that changes how you may exercise your workplace discrimination rights. The courts are public entities; arbitration reproduces a court, but in a private setting and usually without a jury. An arbitration contract says that rather than going to a court run by the government to resolve your dispute, you and the employer will go to an arbitrator, a neutral decision-maker like a judge who’s an expert in the relevant part of the law. Unlike a judge, the arbitrator expects to be paid by the parties, but allows you to resolve your dispute more quickly than you likely could in court.

Employment arbitration has come under fire recently because some people feel that it’s not fair to the employee. Courts across the United States haven’t yet come to a consensus about when an arbitration contract is so unfair that they shouldn’t enforce it. If you think your arbitration contract is unfair, you should talk to a workplace discrimination lawyer about whether you could challenge it in your area.


PAYMENT

Workplace discrimination lawyers most often charge hourly legal fees. The size of the hourly fee depends on where you live and what kind of problem you have. Some workplace discrimination lawyers may ask for a retainer, which is a large payment at the start of the case, from which the lawyer deducts hourly fees and other costs as the case goes on. You may have to pay more than one retainer.

Some workplace discrimination lawyers work on contingency, in which they are paid from a percentage of the money you win. This applies most often when you stand to win significant money in a lawsuit. You should discuss the percentage that you will pay the workplace discrimination lawyer in advance.

For the same reason, wrongful termination lawyers almost always offer free evaluations of potential clients’ cases. Call your wrongful termination lawyer and ask for a consultation, a meeting at which the lawyer learns about your case and you learn about the lawyer.