The Law and Your Job: Dealing with Employment-Related Discrimination

At some point in your working career, you may believe that you have been the victim of employment-related discrimination. In most cases, your first response should be an informal one — bring the problem to the attention of the person you believe discriminated against you or to that person's supervisor. What happened may have been an innocent mistake on his or her part, or you may have misconstrued the situation. Give everyone the benefit of the doubt and an opportunity to clear the air and/or rectify the situation. If the problem remains, you can continue to try to resolve it informally by "working your way up the ladder."

If you suspect discrimination, it's important that you get advice as soon as possible from your state's anti-discrimination agency or an employment law attorney for the following reasons.

  • Time limits are in place for filing complaints and lawsuits related to employment discrimination.
  • Some states require that you file a complaint with them before filing one with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), while others require exactly the opposite.
  • You need to find out what information you need to prove your claim.

If you're unable to locate your state's anti-discrimination agency or an employment law attorney, you can also contact the EEOC. The EEOC can help you understand if you have the grounds to file a formal complaint against your employer, inform you of your rights, and explain your options.

If you want to file a lawsuit against your employer, you must file a claim first. Claims can be filed with the EEOC by mail or by calling the EEOC office nearest you. Call 1-800-669-4000 to be connected with the EEOC's National Contact Center. You can also visit the office to file your claim in person.

If you file a complaint against your employer with the EEOC, you cannot be fired, demoted, or discriminated against for doing so.

If you file a formal complaint, the EEOC notifies your employer about the complaint, and if the commission decides that your allegation merits further investigation, it may collect additional information related to your charge. After the commission completes its research, the EEOC discusses the evidence with you or with the employer as appropriate. It may also select the case for mediation, assuming you and the employer are willing to try to resolve your disagreement using this process. Mediation offers you a faster means of resolving your problem than using the regular EEOC investigation process. If you agree to mediation and it's unsuccessful, the EEOC can continue its investigation.

If the EEOC's investigation shows that your rights were discriminated against, it notifies you and the employer of its finding and works with the employer to try to develop a remedy for the discrimination. If a remedy can't be agreed upon, the EEOC decides whether to file a lawsuit against your employer in federal court. On the other hand, if the EEOC and your employer identify a remedy for your problem, you can't file a lawsuit. However, you can file a lawsuit if the employer doesn't live up to its agreement with the EEOC.

If the EEOC finds no reasonable cause that discrimination did occur, it issues you a right to sue letter, and you're free to hire an attorney and file a lawsuit in federal court if you wish. You must do so within 90 days of receiving the letter. (The attorney you hire may be willing to take your case on contingency if your case is a strong one.)

To help find an employment attorney who can help you pursue your claim, contact the National Employment Lawyers Association at 415-296-7629.

If you file a complaint with the EEOC and it doesn't act on your complaint within 180 days, then you can request that it issue you a right to sue letter.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

The Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces federal anti-discrimination laws relating to discrimination on the basis of disability, pay and other compensation, national origin or ethnicity, pregnancy, race, religion, and sex.

Contact the EEOC's main office in Washington, D.C., or the regional office closest to you if you have a question about any of the laws that help protect you from being discriminated against when you apply for a job or after you're hired, or if you want to file a formal complaint against an employer because you believe you were discriminated against.
EEOC
1801 L St., NW
Washington, DC 20507
202-663-4900, 202-663-4944 (TTY)

Dial 1-800-669-4000 or 1-800-669-6820 (TTY) to be connected with your EEOC local office. To request EEOC publications, dial 1-800-669-3362.

If the EEOC does find reasonable cause, it will contact the employer and attempt to work out a settlement. If the EEOC is unable to resolve the issue out of court, it may file a lawsuit on your behalf; however, the EEOC files very few lawsuits. Assuming the EEOC wins on your behalf, and depending on the basis of the lawsuit, the employer may be ordered to hire you, reinstate you, promote you with a raise that's paid retroactively, reimburse you for the missed salary, and/or pay your legal fees. The employer can also be fined or penalized in some other way.

If you lose your case, depending on your state, the court can order you to pay the legal fees your employer accrued while defending itself against your lawsuit. This penalty is rarely handed down, and the lawsuit must be clearly frivolous, that is, have no basis in law or fact, to reach this conclusion.

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