Our careers often become who we are, but unfortunately, if you are a member of a marginalized population, these dual identities may be at odds. If an employer is not accepting of who you are, it can become nearly impossible to complete required tasks. In worst case scenarios, discriminatory events or general workplace hostility may lead to a rushed resignation or immediate termination. No matter the circumstances, losing a job—particularly when you have not been presented with an opportunity to first find a new one—is a lot like getting the rug pulled out from under you. You are effectively left to face financial anxiety, a sense of purposelessness, and resentment toward your former work environment. Meanwhile, with zero consequences in place, your employer continues their malicious treatment towards people like you. While it may seem like the individuals involved “got away with it,” the right course of action may stop them in their tracks.
First, it is important to clarify what kinds of workplace discrimination are enforced by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). It is possible that you are being subjected to maltreatment for a condition or characteristic that falls into a protected class. While workplace training on ageism is becoming more prevalent, many are unaware that individuals over 40 have special protections due to negative stereotypes that middle aged and elderly folks are not as spry as 20-somethings. While greater age is sometimes associated with more meaningful experience, it may not equate to greater or even equal pay to younger employees. In fact, ageism might just result in a layoff.
Pregnant women also fall into a class of protected workers. The EEOC defines pregnancy as a “temporary disability,” which means that light duty for related conditions (gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, etc.) must be honored. Further, when it comes to the birth of the child, the employer must abide by the requirements for maternity leave dictated in the Family and Medical Leave Act. Another lesser-known area of workplace hostility is genetic discrimination, which generally involves unfair treatment based on a biological condition. For example, SVHC represented a client who was facing harassment at work for being HIV positive. A full list of protected classes can be found on the EEOC website.
If you are being discriminated against, harassed, or terminated due to your membership in one of these categories, it is time to act. Ideally, you were able to obtain a copy of your employee file or any vital records before your employer had the opportunity to destroy them. If not, collect and organize any documents that are associated with your employment and subsequent discrimination. Apart from the vital need for documentation, pursuing a workplace-related lawsuit is a bit different than other kinds of litigation. Before you can officially file, you must have written approval from the EEOC or your local state-run employment board. If you fail to take this step, your case will be thrown out.
When it comes to the EEOC, your complaint can be filed online, through the mail, over the phone, or in person at a local office. Specifically, you will need to provide detailed accounts of all incidents, as well as the names of potential witnesses who can validate your claims. Your employer will be notified of your grievance within 10 days, and the EEOC will take an unspecified amount of time to investigate your employer’s response, as well as any additional information that arises. At the end of this period, your complaint will either be thrown out, or you will receive a right to sue letter.
While you can choose to move forward with filing a lawsuit on your own (very rarely will the EEOC or a state agency do so on your behalf), it is ideal to retain a lawyer if you have not done so already. Because the documentation for employment cases can become voluminous, trying to go it alone can quickly become an arduous task. Because it is likely that you are going up against an organization with their own counsel and not just another private citizen, you deserve to be equally-matched. Your career may be who you are, but any abuse that happens at work does not have to define you. With both federal and state measures in place to prevent these exact types of incidents, your employer can only “get away with it” for so long.