Workplace discrimination refers to an employee being treated differently, often negatively, from others based not on their job performance, but because of certain characteristics. Additionally, the employee is treated differently from other employees who perform similar tasks. Both federal and state laws prohibit employers from practicing discrimination in the workplace, with discrimination claims being based on a person’s belonging to a protected class.
Classes that are specifically protected from discrimination include:
- Race or color;
- National origin;
- Political affiliation;
- Medical condition;
- Pregnancy; and
- Sexual orientation in some cities and states.
As previously mentioned, discrimination occurs when an employee or prospective employee is treated less favorably than other employees or prospective employees, due to their membership to one or more protected classes. Discrimination may occur at any time beginning when a person is looking for a job, to after the person has been hired as an employee.
For example, refusing employment to an otherwise qualified candidate based on their religious beliefs may constitute workplace discrimination. Another common discrimination claim is if the employer fails to provide reasonable workplace accommodations to a disabled employee. Once again, it is every employer’s duty to ensure that every employee or applicant is treated fairly and equally.
Workplace discrimination can take many forms, and if a protected class is involved, many types of conduct may be found to be discriminatory. Employers cannot discriminate when imposing work conditions or privileges, or when determining wages, bonuses, or time off.
Some other examples include:
- Hiring, firing, or force retirement of an employee based on their protected class;
- Not hiring someone based on their protected class;
- Using language in job advertisements and recruitment materials that will deter candidates of protected classes;
- Granting benefits to one group but not another, even though both groups do the same type of work;
- Withholding salary or wages;
- Decreasing health and medical benefits to those belonging to a protected class;
- Forcing someone to work under harsh or unreasonable conditions;
- Waivers of the right to sue in exchange for severance pay at the end of employment; or
- Disputes regarding hours worked, especially when overtime and vacation pay are involved.
Employers are also prohibited from engaging in the following actions:
- Harassment, such as actions that contribute to a hostile work environment. This includes the actions of coworkers as well as employers;
- Retaliation against employees for whistleblowing, reporting harassment or discrimination, filing a lawsuit, or participating in an investigation of the workplace discrimination;
- Excluding certain persons from employment advertisements, or showing a preference; or
- Offering or giving promotions only to those with certain preferred characteristics, as opposed to any employee who has earned them.
In order to prove workplace discrimination, you will most likely need to belong to a protected class. Generally, to succeed in a workplace discrimination lawsuit, you must demonstrate to a court that an employer or prospective employer intentionally treated you differently because of your belonging to a protected class.
Such intent may also be proven if the employer has repeatedly treated others of the same protected class unfairly. It is important that you prove that the employer consciously made a choice to treat you differently from other employees solely based on your membership to a protected class.
On the other hand, the employer will likely be attempting to prove that their actions were motivated by something else entirely, something unrelated to the employee’s protected status. Attempting to prove that their actions were motivated by a legitimate purpose is known as the pretext. An example of pretext would be that the employee was not qualified for the job, or that the company requirements had changed. Another example is that there were better, more qualified applicants. In an employment discrimination lawsuit, proof of the employer’s actual intentions is absolutely imperative.
In order to initiate a workplace discrimination lawsuit, you must first file a complaint with the Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). Importantly, filing a complaint with the EEOC, is required before any employee is allowed to file a lawsuit in court. The EEOC will then investigate the matter, and gather all of the documentation it needs to act.
If after a thourough investigation, the EEOC finds that discrimination did occur, they will work with both parties to attempt a settlement. If a settlement is unsuccessful or is not possible, the EEOC may file a lawsuit on behalf of the employee for the discrimination claim. They may also grant the individual the right to sue in court.
As previously mentioned, it can be difficult to prove a workplace discrimination claim. This is because you need to prove your membership to a protected class, as well as your employer’s intent. Further, workplace discrimination can involve a wide variety of factors and issues.
Therefore, you should consult with a skilled and knowledgeable employment law attorney if you need to file a claim for discrimination. An experienced employment law attorney can help you determine and assert your rights, gather evidence, and guide you through the process of filing a claim with the EEOC. Additionally, they can help you file a civil lawsuit against the employer, and represent you in any court proceedings.