Discrimination in the workplace can take a variety of different forms, and there are specific laws that exist to protect employees against discrimination. When employers violate employment discrimination laws, they can face serious legal consequences. Federal law prohibits workplace discrimination in a number of aspects of employment, including recruiting, hiring, promotion policies, compensation, job evaluations, training, retirement plans, and benefits.
Anti-discrimination laws are enforced at the federal level by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and state laws also exist to protect employee's rights. Race, religion, national origin, age, gender, and disability status are among the characteristics that may be grounds for illegal employment discrimination. Listed below are three employment rights that you should be aware of in order to protect yourself from becoming a victim of discrimination.
Tip #1: All questions asked in a job interview must relate specifically to the position and the qualifications of the applicant. According to employment lawyer Steve Cahn, "When an individual is applying for a job or going to a job interview, there are certain types of questions that employers are not allowed to ask...It's unlawful for the employer to make inquiries about someone's health, about their disability, about their age, whether they're married and have children...those type of things are illegal for an employer to ask a potential employee." Failing to hire an individual because of his or her race, color, gender, religion, national origin, birthplace, age, disabilities, or marital status is considered discrimination and violates civil rights laws.
Tip #2: Employees who have experienced unfair discrimination may be entitled to back pay, compensation for pain and suffering, and restoration of employment position if they were fired or reassigned. Employers who are found guilty of workplace discrimination may also have to pay punitive damages for their illegal actions. Employment lawyer Greg Noble explains, "These (punitive) damages are very real in discrimination cases. They're allowable when the conduct of the employer is intentional or overly reckless and the employer is going out of [his or her] way to discriminate against you or harass you. A lot of times, courts look to whether or not employers have effective anti-discrimination policies in their workplace when they're deciding the reasonableness of punitive damages."
Tip #3: Discrimination laws in some states, such as New Jersey, protect employees from discrimination based on a misperception. Kevin Costello, a New Jersey employment lawyer, explains, "If you have a disability or a handicap, you can't be harassed or discriminated against. But the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination also prevents you from being harassed or discriminated against if you're perceived to have a handicap or disability even when you don't. It prevents you from being discriminated against or harassed if you're straight but perceived to be gay, or gay and perceived to be straight...We're trying to prevent discrimination in the workplace here, and it wouldn't work if the only discrimination we could prevent is when the bigot gets it right."
Discrimination in the workplace is a serious problem. If you are experiencing discrimination at your place of employment, you should inform your supervisor and Human Resources department immediately, both verbally and in writing. Keep copies of your notifications to these individuals, as well as a record of their responses. Document how the discrimination was handled. You should also file a complaint with the EEOC and your state's division of civil rights. It is also important to speak to a lawyer who handles employment cases and has experience with discrimination laws. Your attorney can advise of your legal rights and options and ensure that you get the justice you deserve.
Liz Ryan is a Writing and Content Specialist for Lawyer Central. Visit Lawyer Central's Employee Issue Resources for legal information about employment law and to find an experienced employment lawyer. Discuss workplace rights and related issues on the free Law Forum.
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