If you’ve been discriminated against at work, or are a victim of a hostile workplace, we explain how to successfully fight for your rights in court.
In Washington State (and other states), employers are generally allowed to make employment decisions for any reason or no reason at all. This means that a manager who is rude, mean and loses his temper can indeed make his subordinates miserable under the law so long as he (or she) is a jerk to everyone equally.
Protected Classes & Illegal Employment Decisions
However, such a manager is not allowed to treat any of his or her subordinates differently because of their race, creed, color, sex, pregnancy, veteran/military status, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, age (40+), marital status, or presence of HIV or a disability.
This means that if an employer failed to hire or promote you because of any of these factors then the employer has engaged in illegal discrimination. Likewise, an employer has also engaged in illegal discrimination if it disciplined, harassed, demoted, or terminated you because of the above factors. Generally, courts look to whether you and others in your protected class are treated less favorably than others not in your protected class. An example of this in the age discrimination context would show that managers routinely promote “young” employees who are less qualified than employees over the age of 40.
Types of Evidence: Direct & Circumstantial
Proving a claim of discrimination against a sophisticated and well represented employer is usually difficult and tricky. In rare cases, there may actually be “direct evidence” of discrimination against you. This means that you can prove that a manager (or managers) with decision-making authority over you said or did something that on its face proves he or she is treating you differently because of your protected status. For example, if, days before your manager fires you, he tells you he thinks pregnant women should not be working, then you have direct evidence of discrimination. Of course, most employers are not so bold and blatant.
Thus, the second, and much more common but difficult method of proving discrimination relies on “circumstantial evidence.” Such evidence consists of showing that the employer has given a false reason to hide its unlawful, discriminatory motive. This can consist of showing how the manager has given multiple and inconsistent reasons for the decision or that others not in your protected class engaged in the same conduct as you but were treated differently, etc.
In addition, a disabled employee who requests accommodations may be able to prove unlawful discrimination simply if the employer fails to discuss the issue, and simply makes an adverse employment decision against the employee. The same may be true for religious accommodations.
Often, an employee is not just discriminated against based on a single discrete employment decision such as being fired or a failure to promote; rather, the employee suffers from daily hostility such as demeaning comments, intimidation, etc. This may rise to the level of an unlawful hostile working environment if it is severe and pervasive enough. These claims are very fact-specific and it is important to document such hostile behavior at or around the time of its occurrence.
The Importance of Documentation
Indeed, it is generally helpful to document any concerns of discrimination or a hostile work environment by simply emailing yourself with the facts of what happened (although you should likely use your own personal phone or home computer when you are not on the company clock). This will record the conduct close in time to when it happened and such records can be extremely helpful.
You may be considering whether you should complain up the chain of command about your concerns. If your concerns of discrimination are “reasonable,” the whistleblower provisions of a relevant statute may likely protect you from future retaliation. If you are considering this or you have already complained to a manager or others, please review this site’s page on “retaliation.”
It is important to note that the above information is for general purposes only and cannot be construed as legal advice since your situation is unique and requires analyzing the potential applicable law or laws to your specific factual circumstances.
Statute of Limitations
It is also important to be aware that you have only a limited amount of time to file a claim of discrimination. If you want a governmental agency to investigate your claim you have even less time to file a claim with the agency. So please consider acting now and contacting a knowledgeable attorney if you believe you have been discriminated against.
If you have been discriminated against you may be entitled to your lost wages and emotional distress as well as injunctive relief (meaning the employer must stop its discriminatory acts, which may include clearing your name if the employer claims you were fired for a false reason). Likewise, to the extent you choose to go forward with litigation most statutes provide that a “successful” plaintiff shall recover the costs of litigation and attorney’s fees from the defendant employer. In some cases, the plaintiff may even recover punitive damages.