Discrimination and harassment in the workplace can be emotionally and financially draining for the victims. Luckily, victims of discrimination and harassment in the workplace are protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The law takes discrimination and harassment very seriously and therefore, employers are often held liable for these behaviors in the workplace except in rare circumstances.

How do I know if I’m being harassed or discriminated against?

Harassment

Although many people assume that harassment only refers to sexual misconduct, that is not the case. Harassment can refer to any unwelcome misconduct directed towards someone because of that person’s race, color, religion, sex, ethnicity, age or disability. This broad definition encompasses a wide variety of behaviors, including but not limited to:

  • Offensive jokes
  • Racial slurs
  • Physical threats or violence
  • Mockery
  • Insults
  • Offensive language
  • Offensive images
  • Any kind of deliberate interference with an employee’s performance at work

For the most part, harassment is not an isolated incident, but rather occurs repetitively. There’s a difference between being annoyed by someone’s behavior and being harassed, however if at any time you feel that you have to put up with unwelcome conduct in order to keep your job, you are being harassed.

Discrimination

Discrimination may be harder for victims to recognize because it is not as blatant as harassment. Have you noticed that no minorities in the office ever get promotions, pay raises or additional job responsibilities despite being highly qualified? Perhaps you’ve realized that ever since you told your boss that you’re pregnant, you are no longer being considered for the promotion that you’ve been in line to receive for months. In both of these cases, you could be a victim of discrimination. It may help to talk to your human resources department or boss to discuss your feelings and see what their reasoning is behind the choices that have been made in the office. After this conversation, if you feel like your questions are not being answered, then it’s appropriate to take action.

Who is liable if I’m harassed at work?

If your supervisor has harassed you and as a result, you’ve been a victim of a negative action in the workplace, then your employer is liable. For example, if you were fired, passed over for a promotion, or given a pay cut by the supervisor who harassed you, your employer is automatically liable. Sometimes, harassment can get to the point where it creates a hostile work environment, which is an environment that is difficult for an employee to function in because he or she feels threatened, uncomfortable or intimidated. When a supervisor creates a hostile work environment by harassing another employee, the employer can only escape liability if:

  • The employer can prove that they tried to prevent or correct the harassment.
  • The employee who was being harassed did not take advantage of the employer’s efforts to prevent or correct the harassment.

But, employers are not just liable for the behaviors of supervisory employees. In fact, they can be held liable for non-supervisory employees and even non-employees, as long as the victim can show that the employer had control over the harasser. For example, if an employer is aware that a customer repeatedly visits the place of employment and harasses an employee, they are liable to protect the employee. If they fail to do so in a timely manner, they will be held liable.

Who is liable if I’m discriminated against at work?

Employers are liable for discriminatory practices within their workplace. It is against the law to hire, fire, determine salaries, promote, or lay off based on someone’s race, color, age, gender, disability, religion, sex or national origin. Employers will be held liable for these discriminatory practices unless they can prove that they were either not aware of it, or were aware but took action to prevent or address it.

Should I file a complaint?

Anyone who is being discriminated against or harassed in the workplace should take action as soon as possible. In the majority of discrimination and harassment cases, you have 180 days from the time that the incident occurred to file a claim, so it’s important to take action immediately.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission does not allow you to file complaints online, however they can be completed either in person or via mail. To file the claim, you will be asked to provide your contact and employment information as well as a summary of what occurred. Within 10 days of the charge being filed, the employer will be notified. In some situations, the EEOC suggests that the employee and employer sit down together for mediation, however this is not always the case. If mediation is not the appropriate route, the EEOC will request that the employer send a response to the charge that answers any questions the EEOC may have and details the employer’s side of the story.

The investigation of a claim can be a lengthy process depending on the details of the case. In many cases, the EEOC will go to the workplace and privately interview witnesses or other employees. The EEOC may also ask to review the employer’s records if the case warrants it. After the investigation, the EEOC will issue a note of right to sue to the victim if they determine that discrimination or harassment took place in the workplace. At this point, you are legally allowed to pursue a lawsuit against your employer and seek damages for the discrimination or harassment that they are liable for.

The EEOC works diligently to protect victims of discrimination and harassment. To encourage victims to come forward, the EEOC prevents employers from retaliating against any victims who file a complaint. That way, employees do not have to fear losing their jobs, getting demoted or taking a pay cut after blowing the whistle on discriminatory practices.