Workplace rights law was written to help balance the rights of employees with the power of employers. Over the generations, employers who want to optimize profits at the expense of employees developed cultures that slight the people who work for them in a wide range of ways. Only by uniting, litigating, explicating their rights, and building a civil code have employees been able to make progress in improving working conditions.
Workplace discrimination is defined 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. These laws make it unlawful to treat people unequally in hiring, firing, promotion, referral, and other facets of employment based on color, race, religion, national origin, gender, age, physical disability, or heredity. The federal government operates the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to enforce employment standards by investigating complaints in companies that carry out interstate commerce. People who find themselves in conditions of discrimination can engage legal counsel to present complaints to the EEOC who will investigate cases and mandate remedies if the complaint is valid. Virtually all states have adopted employment civil rights legislation that follows the form of the EEOC and covers organizations not necessarily engaged in interstate commerce. State laws may include protections beyond those in the national civil rights legislation.
Workplace harassment is a form of discrimination that may go beyond hiring, firing, promotion, or referral, but can affect the general experience of the workplace and the ability to perform a worker’s job function. Workplace harassment refers to offensive, hostile and abusive treatment. This treatment becomes unlawful when enduring harassment (for example sexual harassment) becomes a condition for continued employment or when abusive behavior becomes severe or pervasive. The EEOC or comparable state agencies will hear and adjudicate complaints of this kind.
EEOC or comparable civil rights investigations by state bodies are not rare. Commonly close to 100,000 investigations take place annually. If such an investigation confirms a charge of workplace discrimination or harassment the legal consequences can be serious for the organization. The organization is ordered by the court to make changes to eliminate the violation conditions. If the situation is fully addressed, the organization may be responsible for legal fees, fines, and punitive damages. The organization may have to pay restitution to the aggrieved party.
- For example, one reported case involved an immigrant from an Islamic country who was harassed and intimidated by his employer. The employee repeatedly reported incidents to senior management without effect. Eventually the employee resigned and the company settled his case for $100,000.
- In another case, an employee with a mental disability employed as a dishwasher in a restaurant chain was being sexually harassed and intimidated by the supervisor. He brought a case before the EEOC resulting in a lawsuit against the employer. The case was finally settled for $85,000.
- Several employees of a large restaurant chain alleged to the EEOC that their supervisor was physically harassing them with some sexual components. The employees repeatedly complained to management with no effect. The complaint brought to the EEOC resulted in a guilty verdict and the chain was compelled to compensate the employees for $160,000. They were also compelled to make administrative changes.
- An employee of a financial management company complained that her manager was harassing her over several years with inappropriate sexual comments, as well as inappropriate emails and phone calls to her home. When she complained about his behavior, she was ultimately fired by the company. A lawsuit against the company resulted in a settlement of $8.4 million.
As a result of the destabilizing consequences of harassment of this kind, some states are mandating that employers train new hires and current employees in how to prevent harassment and discrimination and what to do about it.
Aiman-Smith & Marcy offers an enthusiastic team of employment law, consumer fraud and class action attorneys in Oakland, California. Please contact us to learn more.