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Employment Law FAQs for Employees

Tips for Employees Dealing With Discrimination

Discrimination and harassment can take a number of different forms in the workplace. There are broad federal laws prohibiting discrimination and harassment against individuals on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, religion, disability, pregnancy, and age, among other classifications, in a variety of situations. State and local laws may contain similar protections, may provide broader protections than federal law, and may protect other classes of employees or individuals. If you are an employee, and you feel you are being discriminated against or harassed by your employer or coworkers, what can you do?

  • Review your company's anti-discrimination policy, which may be in your employee handbook or manual, or may be posted somewhere in your plant or office. The fact that your employer may have put an anti-discrimination policy and procedures in writing, and acknowledged that it will not act in discriminatory ways may serve to benefit your position. If you have a copy of the policy in a handbook or other handout, retain a copy of it. Employers are also required to post in a prominent place various posters required by state and federal discrimination laws explaining your rights under the law.

  • Report the discrimination or harassment to your employer, following any policies and procedures that the employer may have put in place regarding reports of discrimination or harassment. If no such procedures exist, make sure your employer is aware that you feel you are being discriminated against or harassed by reporting it to your immediate supervisor, or your supervisor's superior or the employer's human resources department if your supervisor is the perpetrator of the illegal activity. Many employers have designated a specific managerial or human resources individual who is responsible for accepting complaints of discrimination and harassment. If that is the case in your situation, report your complaint directly to that individual. Many illegal acts of discrimination and harassment continue unrecognized or unpunished because the victim does not make it clear that the conduct is unacceptable and unwelcome. However, remember that while your employer is responsible for complying with the law, you alone are responsible for making sure your individual rights are protected.

  • Let your employer know that you are taking the matter seriously. Ask that a written report be made every time you report an incident of discrimination or harassment. Ask that an investigation be made into your allegations and that disciplinary or corrective action against the offenders be taken. Employers are required by law to consider all reports of discrimination and harassment promptly. Employers may not retaliate against you for making such reports. Retaliation is a separate violation of many of these laws and even if you are unable to prove the underlying violation, sometimes you may be able to show you were retaliated against and receive an award or settlement from your employer. However, remember that if you falsely report to your employer that you have been discriminated against or harassed by another employee or supervisor you could face ramifications, not the least of which may be an uncomfortable relationship with the individual you have accused.

  • If you receive no response from your employer or feel your complaints are not being taken seriously, you should consider contacting the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or your state fair employment practices agency, which in most cases share joint responsibility for overseeing compliance with state and federal anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws. Getting these agencies involved in your case will most likely get someone's attention quickly. If you do contact one of these agencies, you may also want to consider contacting an attorney.

  • Remember that, in most cases, once you believe you are being discriminated against, you have a limited amount of time to file a charge with the EEOC or with your state or local fair employment practices agency, or to seek to vindicate your rights in court. The time limits vary between agencies and laws. If you fail to assert your rights within these limitations or filing periods, once knowing that they have been violated, you risk having your case dismissed at the outset.

  • Keep a diary or other accurate record of any incidents of discrimination or harassment. Record the date, approximate time, location, other employees or individuals involved, witnesses, and details of what you felt was improper conduct or speech. Do not stop after filing a charge, as you may need to accurately record any retaliatory action your employer or supervisor takes afterwards.
    Example: A diary entry could contain information such as, On May 10, 1999, I was standing by the copy machine on the 4th floor when Kelly Douglass (supervisor) said 'I hope you realize that I won't have to put up with an old goat like you for much longer, because as soon as you turn sixty I'm going to fire you.' Jack Straup and Kurt McCann (coworkers) were there at the time and heard her say it.
  • Keep any objects or pictures, which were posted, left for you, or given to you in the workplace that you believe were discriminatory or harassing. You may also want to take a picture of such items in the place they were posted if you can.
    Example: You are an African-American, and you arrive at your desk one morning to find a picture of a burning cross-taped to your chair. Keep the picture. Although you will certainly find it reprehensible and upsetting, try to control your urge to tear it up or throw it away. Having the actual offensive item to help prove your case is much easier than having to try to describe what it looked like, and having to hope that your version will be believed.
  • If an item is posted on a bulletin board, wall, refrigerator, or other common and visible area in your workplace, and you find it harassing, you may confiscate it or make a copy of it if you cannot get your supervisor or other representative of your employer to do so. By posting the item in a public place, the perpetrator has allowed others to see it and, consequently, you have the right to remove it or copy it.
    Example: You notice one day at work that someone has taped a pornographic picture onto a bathroom stall door. You do not know who did it, but you find it very offensive. You may take the picture down and keep it, or you may take the picture, take a picture of it, photocopy it, and replace the original (however much that may turn your stomach).
  • State and local laws and ordinances against discrimination vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and may be called something different in each jurisdiction. If you have access to the Internet or can use a library or other means to obtain such access, you may be able to locate information on your rights under these laws and ordinances, or you do so by calling your city, county, or state offices.

If you believe your rights have been violated, you should consider retaining an attorney as early as possible in the process. An attorney can help you sort through the complex laws which may apply, can guide you through the complexities of the legal process, and can (and perhaps most importantly) remain a calm and collected, effective advocate for your rights. Discrimination or harassment is an awful thing, which tears at the emotions of the person who is being discriminated against or harassed and, in some cases, it becomes difficult to separate from those emotions and face the realities and boundaries of the legal system. An attorney, while striving to help you and concerned for your fate, can also look at the big picture more clearly and can help you stay focused on protecting your rights and repairing your emotions.

Copyright © 2008 FindLaw, a Thomson Reuters business

DISCLAIMER: This site and any information contained herein are intended for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. Seek competent counsel for advice on any legal matter.

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