What to Do If You're Targeted by Discrimination at Work

What workplace discrimination looks like in Massachusetts law

By Steph Weber | Last updated on October 5, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorneys Lori A. Jodoin, Matthew Fogelman and Ellen J. Messing

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Workplace discrimination can take many forms, but ultimately it boils down to this: “It’s about being treated differently than your coworkers,” says employment attorney Lori Jodoin, a partner at Powers, Jodoin, Margolis & Mantell in Boston.

Who Is Protected Under Anti-Discrimination Law?

Under federal laws such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), protected characteristics include an employee’s:

  • Sexual orientation;
  • Gender identity;
  • Race;
  • Disability;
  • Religious beliefs;
  • National origin;
  • Mental health; and
  • Age.

Employers cannot base adverse employment decisions on these characteristics. Workers are also entitled to equal pay and a work environment free from harassment or retaliation.

If you’re being treated differently because you have a blue shirt on versus somebody wearing a red shirt, that’s OK. But if you’re being treated differently because you’re a woman versus a man, that’s unlawful.

Lori A. Jodoin

What Are Examples of Discriminatory Actions?

“If you’re being treated differently because you have a blue shirt on versus somebody wearing a red shirt, that’s OK,” Jodoin says. “But if you’re being treated differently because you’re a woman versus a man, that’s unlawful.”

While just one incident can be sufficient to establish an employment discrimination claim, some victims endure a series of transgressions, from outright sexual harassment and racial harassment to inherent bias that is “more subtle, nuanced, below the surface,” says employment law attorney Matthew Fogelman of Fogelman Law in Newton.

“Some employers can be well-intentioned but misguided,” adds Jodoin. If an employee develops a health condition, the manager may preemptively reduce their workload or exclude them from advancement opportunities, thinking they are being helpful. But doing so is “extremely discriminatory,” says Jodoin, and should only be done if the employee asks for changes or makes a request for reasonable accommodations.

Similarly, an employer’s refusal to work collaboratively with an employee to identify a reasonable accommodation should prompt the employee to consider legal action as well.

[Some forms of discrimination are] more subtle, nuanced, below the surface… Documenting issues is always good.

Matthew Fogelman

How to Document Workplace Discrimination

Proving the type of discrimination is essential but sometimes challenging.

“Documenting issues is always good,” says Fogelman. Filing a complaint with the human resources department can often be a very good option, and engaging in protected activity in Massachusetts protects you from employer retaliation.

Track incidents yourself. This way, key details, such as dates and verbal exchanges, are preserved; and a timeline is formed, which is important should counsel become involved.

Employee handbooks and company records, including internal communications and the employee’s personnel file, can also be procured to substantiate allegations.

When a client of Ellen Messing’s was fired from a high-ranking position in the financial services industry, it was her colleagues’ emails and instant messages that revealed the underbelly of office dynamics. “Even we were shocked by the things said about her and women in general. In an office of mostly men, she was deeply resented for being successful, and a brutal campaign was started to humiliate her and drive her out,” says Messing, a labor and employment attorney at Messing, Rudavsky & Weliky in Newton, who settled the case out of court.

It takes great courage to stand up against unfairness, but it’s the only way discrimination laws get enforced.

Ellen J. Messing

Factors That Drive Discriminatory Practices

“People in certain categories are scrutinized more heavily,” adds Messing—with notable upticks during periods of economic instability. A “cyclical pattern of harshness” ensues, she says, as companies seek to maximize control over their staffing by eliminating employees with young children or protected characteristics, like advanced age, pregnancy, or disabling medical conditions.

After an older man “was terminated out of the blue without any warnings or write-ups,” Fogelman found that a new manager was singling out the employee while younger workers were given multiple chances to correct behaviors.

Identifying these patterns of inconsistencies—who gets hired, fired, promoted, disciplined or the best work assignments—can signal the presence of discriminatory practices.

Before You Can Sue, You Must File a Charge of Discrimination

Before any case can advance to the court system, for example, an employment lawyer must file a discrimination complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination within 300 days of the date of any discrimination, says Fogelman.

Find an Experienced Discrimination Law Attorney

Despite progress, workplace discrimination remains pervasive. “It takes great courage to stand up against unfairness,” says Messing, “but it’s the only way discrimination laws get enforced.”

If you have experienced discrimination in the workplace, don’t hesitate to contact an employment law attorney with experience in discrimination claims. Use the Super Lawyers directory to locate and contact an attorney in your area.

For more information about this legal area, see our overview of discrimination law and related content on wrongful termination and sexual harassment.

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