Protecting Your Rights: How to Address Workplace Discrimination and Harassment
Fighting discrimination, retaliation and harassment in New YorkBy Andrew Brandt | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on October 6, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorneys Mariann Meier Wang and Zoe Salzman
Use these links to jump to different sections:
- How Severe Was the Workplace Incident?
- Where Are Discrimination Complaints Filed?
- How Does an Employment Lawyer Help With a Discrimination Claim?
- What to Expect When Meeting With an Attorney
- How Long Do Discrimination Lawsuits Take To Resolve?
- State Law May Provide More Robust Legal Protections Than Federal Law
- Find an Experienced Attorney
In the United States, everyone has the right to equal treatment in their work environment. This right is guaranteed by a range of federal and state anti-discrimination laws, including:
- Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964;
- The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA); and
- The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
These laws and others prohibit employers from engaging in various types of discrimination or retaliation against job applicants and employees on the basis of their race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, pregnancy, marital status, national origin, religion, age, disability, genetic information, and military status.
So what do you do if you feel harassed or discriminated against on the job?
How Severe Was the Workplace Incident?
“First and foremost, how offended are you by the violation, and how hurt are you?” asks Mariann Wang, a civil rights and employment attorney at Cuti Hecker Wang. “If it didn’t hurt you much, you might want to first address it with the person—use your common sense.”
For example, sex-based discrimination includes sexual harassment, which can either be severe or pervasive. A severe action might be a single instance of sexual assault from a supervisor or coworker, while pervasive sexual harassment might include an ongoing hostile work environment of sexualized jokes or disparaging remarks about someone’s gender.
“If the violation is serious—your health is impacted, or you can’t do your work because of it—then you need to make a complaint to the appropriate person,” she continues. In most cases, this means human resources. “There are times when the violation is so severe that you immediately have a claim you can pursue, but the vast majority of cases are a little subtler.”
Where Are Discrimination Complaints Filed?
If you make a complaint, use terms such as “discrimination” and “harassment” and put everything in writing. “If you don’t articulate it as a complaint and hear those keywords,” Wang says, “it gets difficult later to prove that you made a complaint.”
Between your workplace HR, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which handles charges of discrimination, or your state or local government agency, it can be hard to know where to turn at each step. That’s where an attorney can come in handy.
How Does an Employment Lawyer Help With a Discrimination Claim?
“We can best analyze what your options are, given the facts and circumstances of your case, and knowing what relevant laws and remedies you have,” says Zoe Salzman, a civil rights and employment attorney at Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady. “Calling a lawyer as soon as it happened is going to give you the best understanding of whether you were wronged and, if you were, what your options are.
“I’m not the right lawyer to call if you’re trying to get help with unemployment benefits or you think you didn’t get the right pension payment. But anything involving discrimination or harassment—or even failure to pay overtime—I think of as a civil rights violation.”
What to Expect When Meeting With an Attorney
Wang and Salzman ask potential clients to run through the facts: What happened, where and when? Who witnessed it? Was the harm physical or emotional? Is there video, photo or text evidence?
“Usually, when clients are coming to me,” says Wang, “it’s because the system was so broken in their employment situation that there’s no way they can get any answer for what they suffered by reaching out to that institution.”
How Long Do Discrimination Lawsuits Take To Resolve?
Often, employment discrimination takes place over a period of months or years.
For Salzman, having clients make timelines is an enormous help—especially as it pertains to retaliation, which companies sometimes disguise as legitimate employment action. “If there’s a bad performance review or letter that sets forth the reasons for firing—any record like that—we want to see it sooner rather than later,” she says.
State Law May Provide More Robust Legal Protections Than Federal Law
The New York City Human Rights Law actually gives workers in the city’s five boroughs greater protections than they have under federal law. The standards required for a plaintiff are much lower, Wang says, and there are no caps on damages. “If a supervisor harasses you,” she adds, “there’s essentially automatic liability to the employer.”
For both attorneys, the statute of limitations or time limit is a big concern. “If you’re going to bring a claim of employment discrimination under federal law, those usually have to be filed within 300 days of the incident. It’s a very strange number,” Salzman says. “The rule of thumb is: Go see a lawyer as soon as possible.”
Find an Experienced Attorney
If you have experienced workplace discrimination and would like to speak with an experienced attorney in your area for legal advice, search the Super Lawyers directory of employment lawyers with experience in discrimination claims.
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