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Dealing with Discrimination: Tips for Employees

Discrimination and harassment can take a number of different forms. There are broad-sweeping federal laws that prohibit discrimination and harassment against individuals on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, religiondisability, pregnancy, and age, among other classifications, in a variety of situations.

State and local laws may contain similar protections, and may also provide for protection in other situations. Many detailed laws address and prohibit, in particular, discrimination and harassment in the workplace. If you are an employee, and you feel you are being discriminated against or harassed by your employer or coworkers, what can you do?

The following list contains suggestions for employees who think they are dealing with discrimination in their workplace.

First, Speak to an Attorney

If you think you are being discriminated against at work, your first step is to consult an attorney immediately. An experienced employment lawyer will help you navigate this complex area of law, taking your specific situation into account. There are complicated issues involving statutory coverage, interrelation of federal and state laws, filing requirements, evidence gathering, and retaliation, among others. It is a good idea to contact an attorney as soon as possible so that you can have legal guidance moving forward.

Make Your Employer Aware

Make your employer aware that you feel you are being discriminated against or harassed. It is likely that many illegal acts of discrimination and harassment go unrecognized or unpunished because the victim does not make it clear that the conduct is unacceptable and unwelcome. Rare is the case where employers will readily admit to discrimination or harassment and help you to draft legal papers against them. Your employer is responsible for complying with the law, but you alone are responsible for making sure your personal rights are protected.

Ask for a Written Report

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 is taken. Employers are required by law to give prompt consideration to all reports of discrimination and harassment.

Make a Claim to the EEOC or Your State Agency

If you receive no response from your employer, consider contacting the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC has responsibility for overseeing compliance with many federal anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws, and your state agency is responsible for related state laws. Getting the government involved in your case will most likely get someone's attention fairly quickly.

Compile and Keep Your Records

Keep a diary of any incidents of discrimination or harassment. Record the date, approximate time, location, parties involved, witnesses, and details of the improper conduct or speech. Also, keep any objects or photos that were posted, left for you, or given to you in the workplace that you believe were discriminatory or harassing. Take a photo of the offending object before taking it down or moving it, for use by your attorney later. The location of the object may make the offense worse, such as if the object is visible to other employees who may pass by your office or workspace. Also, keep any offending emails or communications between you and the offending individual.

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."

Review Your Company's Anti-Discrimination Policy

Review your company's anti-discrimination policy. The fact that your employer may have put it 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.

Review Federal and State Laws

Review federal and state laws to familiarize yourself with your rights before speaking to an attorney. The statutes are challenging, and an experienced lawyer will help you navigate them. These laws are available at law libraries, some general libraries, and on the internet. Some major federal anti-discrimination and harassment laws include:

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e, et seq. This federal law prohibits discrimination in terms and conditions of employment on the bases of race, color, national origin, sex, and religion.
  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA): 29 U.S.C. §§ 621, et seq. This federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of age for workers over the age of 40.
  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101, et seq. This federal law prohibits discrimination against certain disabled individuals and requires employers to make "reasonable accommodations" to allow access to buildings and functionality in the workplace.
  • Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA): 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601, et seq. This federal law requires employers to allow employees time off and not discriminate against them, for taking care of personal or family medical needs.

State laws against discrimination vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and may be called something different in each jurisdiction. If you have access to the statutes or legal codes for your state, review the table of contents or indexes and look for headings or descriptors that concern fair employment laws, discrimination, equal opportunity, and other similar topics.

Get Legal Help to Deal with Discrimination at Work

Dealing with discrimination or harassment is bad enough in any setting, but when it happens at work, you may feel trapped since work is unavoidable. Access additional resources through FindLaw's section on Discrimination.

If you've been dealing with discrimination or harassment at work, it's in your best interest to get in touch with a local employment lawyer who can explain your legal options.

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Contact a qualified employment discrimination attorney to make sure your rights are protected.

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