Is my employer liable for discrimination or harassment in the workplace?

November 6, 2018

The effects of discrimination and harassment in the workplace can take a severe emotional and financial toll on those who have been subjected to it. Fortunately, the law has provided several protections for those employees in 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.

How do I know if I’m being harassed?

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), “Harassment in unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.” ( See: https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/harassment.cfm).

Unwelcome can include, but is not limited to: Insults, racial slurs, offensive images, mockery or any kind of deliberate interference with an employee’s performance at work.

The EEOC goes on to say, “Petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality. To be unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people.”  (See: https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/harassment.cfm).

Accordingly, for the most part, harassment is not an isolated incident, but occurs repetitively.

How do I know if I’m being discriminated against?

On the other hand, discrimination is generally not as blatant as harassment. Discrimination generally occurs when an employee or potential employee is treated less favorably because of a certain identifying characteristic. For example, if an employee feels as though they are not being promoted due to their race or national origin or if any employee gets demoted shortly after informing their employer about their pregnancy, then both may be victims of discrimination.

Who is liable if I’m harassed at work?

There is no simple answer to this as it depends on the circumstances. Generally, an employer can be held liable for the wrongful conduct of any of their employees.  If a supervisor is harassing you in the workplace and as a result, you’ve been a victim of negative treatment in the workplace, then your employer is likely to be liable. For example, if an employee is fired by the same supervisor who is harassing them, your employer is automatically liable.

Furthermore, the harassment can rise to a level where the harassment creates a hostile work environment. A hostile work environment is an environment that is difficult for an employee to function in because they fell threatened, uncomfortable or intimidated. According to the EEOC, if an employee is being subjected to a hostile work environment, an employer can avoid liability only if they can prove that:

  • The employer reasonably tried to prevent and promptly correct the harassing behavior;
  • The employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer

Any employer can also be held liable for harassment by a non-supervisory employee or a non-employee over whom the employee has control over (e.g., independent contractors or customers on the premises), if the employer knew or should have known about the harassing conduct and failed to make a reasonable attempt to prevent it from continuing.

Who is liable if I’m discriminated at work?

Similarly, employers are liable for discriminatory practices within the workplace. It is illegal for an employer to hire, fire or make any employment decisions based on someone’s race, color, age, gender, disability, religion, sex or national origin. An employer will be held liable for these discriminatory practices unless they can prove that they were not aware of it, or were aware and took preventive actions.

What should I do if I am being discriminated or harassed at work?

The EEOC is the U.S. Government agency that is responsible for making sure that federal anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws are being enforced. If an employee is being discriminated against or harassed in the workplace, then they should consider filing a complaint with the EEOC. For the most part, an employee has 180 days from the day of the incident to file a claim.

If an employee files a complaint with the EEOC, the EEOC will begin an independent investigation. The EEOC will likely contact your employer or co-workers or co-workers to ensure a thorough investigation. Further, EEOC officers may make site visits to the employees workplace and conduct witness interviews.

An EEOC investigation can be a length process depending on the complexity of the respective case. Once the investigation is completed, if the EEOC determines that there is reasonable cause to believe that the employee is being subjected to  harassment and/or discrimination in the workplace, they will provide the employee with a right to sue notice. At this point, the employee is legally permitted to pursue a lawsuit against their employer and seek damages for discrimination or harassment.

If an employee feels that they are being subjected to any form of harassment or discrimination on the basis of their race, gender, color, religion, sex(including pregnancy), ethnicity, age or disability in the workplace then they should consult with an attorney who is experienced in labor law immediately. The laws governing harassment and discrimination are complex. There are strict regulations governing the process for filing a lawsuit. Furthermore, there are strict time restrictions, known as statute of limitations, as to when a lawsuit can be filed. The experienced attorneys at Shegerian Conniff are ready to hold your employer accountable, fight for your legal rights, and seek justice.  Click here to contact us today or call us at 310-322-7500 for a free consultation.