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Unfair treatment at the workplace can take many forms. It can include illegal harassment and discrimination based on protected characteristics such as age, disability, pregnancy, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, religion, color, nationality, or sex.
Every employee deserves to be treated fairly at work. This includes being treated with dignity, respect, and equality when it comes to promotions, pay raises, or other opportunities based on job performance.
The sad reality is that many hard-working employees experience unfair workplace treatment through no fault of their own. Below are some examples of employees treated unfairly by their employers that we see time and time again:
- Retaliating against an employee for reporting or refusing to engage in conduct the employee believes is illegal.
- Discriminating against pregnant employees for taking pregnancy leave, including reducing their pay, demoting them, or terminating them.
- Refusing to accommodate disabled employees’ requests for medical leave.
- Sexually harassing an employee and then punishing them when they refuse to engage in sexual conduct.
- Terminating long-term older workers to replace them with cheaper, younger employees.
These are just a few examples of unfair treatment at work. Regardless of your particular situation, there are steps you can take to protect your rights.
What Can I Do When My Boss or Employer Treats Me Unfairly?
Unfair treatment at the workplace can leave you feeling powerless and demoralized. Fortunately, California has extensive labor laws that protect workers from discrimination, harassment, retaliation, and other unfair treatment. These laws include the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), the California Labor Code, and various federal statutes, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If you believe your boss or employer is mistreating you, it’s essential to learn your employee rights, California’s relevant laws, and how they apply to your situation. It’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with your company’s policies. Check your employee handbook or any other guidelines your employer provides, including procedures for reporting complaints or grievances. Make sure to follow these procedures and adhere to any specific timelines or requirements for reporting incidents of unfair treatment.
Understand That You Are Not Alone
Realize that you are not alone. Thousands of employees all around the country suffer from unfair treatment at work. This treatment often has nothing to do with the employee, but is because of a supervisor or co-worker’s bias or prejudice towards a certain group of people — for example, sexism, racism, or prejudice older employees, to name a few.
Document the Unfair Treatment
Once you recognize that you are not alone, it is important to document the unfair treatment immediately. You can do this in a number of ways, including creating a journal, sending emails, text messages, or other types of communications that confirm the unfair treatment is happening. Ideally, you can document this evidence as the unfair treatment is happening. This is what lawyers sometimes call “contemporaneous evidence,” which is evidence demonstrating something as it is happening. Lawyers love contemporaneous evidence; it’s convincing. Once you have collected evidence of the unfair treatment, it is time to report it.
Report the Unfair Treatment
If you are ready to report your employer’s violation for unfair or discriminatory treatment, you can submit your complaint.
When you make your report, there are a few rules to keep in mind.
- Keep it focused. Don’t list every problem you’ve ever had with the company; focus on the illegal conduct.Talk to a lawyer if you don’t know which conduct to include.
- No legal buzzwords. Don’t use legal terminology you don’t fully understand. For instance, people love to say they are experiencing a “hostile work environment.” This is a legal term of art that describes illegal harassment and it’s a heavy burden to prove. Instead, focus on the specific conduct that you believe created hostility. For instance, “My supervisor has commented multiple times that, since I got pregnant, I am lazy,” or “My supervisor makes racially insensitive comments, such as [insert examples here]” are much more effective complaints than the (often wrong) legal conclusion that you are experiencing a “hostile work environment.”
- Be constructive. Identify what you would like to see changed. Maybe you would like workplace sensitivity training or you believe you should be allowed to transfer so you do not have to report to someone who demeans you every day. Your complaint should offer constructive solutions so that you look like the reasonable one.
- Avoid threats. Employers hate to hear that you’ll sue them or hire a lawyer. You might be surprised to learn that juries hate to hear it, too, and often think threats to hire a lawyer make it look like you are a “cooking up” a lawsuit, when all you are actually doing is trying to solve a problem at work. As in the rest of our lives, threats are not usually productive when trying to solve a workplace problem.
Knowing that you cannot be retaliated against for reporting unfair treatment is important. If this happens, your employer may be liable for retaliation.
If you feel you can’t file a complaint for whatever reason, you should talk to an employment lawyer about how best to preserve claims. Certain types of claims require your employer to know about the misconduct in order to be liable. Maybe your employer knows because a manager is misbehaving, or because it’s wide open for the world to see. Either way, this is a tricky situation and one where expert advice can be helpful.
Whom Do I Contact If My Employer Is Treating Me Unfairly?
If you are experiencing unfairness in the workplace, there are several ways to report the situation. The following are avenues to consider:
- Supervisor or manager – If you feel comfortable addressing the unfair treatment directly with your immediate supervisor or manager, this may be the best place to start. Your boss or supervisor may not be aware of the situation or its impact on you and can work with you to remedy the problem.
- Human resources (HR) – Your company’s HR department typically handles employee concerns and complaints. HR should be able to investigate your complaint and work towards resolving the issue.
- Anonymous company complaint hotline – Some organizations allow employees to report problems anonymously through a company or private hotline. Check your company’s policies or employee handbook for information on any available call centers.
- Labor Commissioner’s Office – If speaking with your boss or HR fails to solve your issue or your employer retaliates against you for reporting, you can file a complaint with the California Labor Commissioner’s Office, also known as the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE). They enforce California labor laws and handle wage and hour disputes, retaliation claims, and other workplace violations.
- California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) – If the unfair treatment involves discrimination, harassment, or retaliation based on protected characteristics such as race, gender, religion, or disability, you can file a complaint with the DFEH.
- The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) – This is the federal agency responsible for enforcing federal laws against workplace discrimination. The EEOC will investigate your complaint and may provide you with a right-to-sue letter if they find evidence of a violation.
- Employment attorney – If you think your situation requires legal action or if your employer refuses to address the unfair treatment, an employment attorney can evaluate your case, explain your rights, and guide you through the complaint process.
The best way to report depends on your circumstances. It’s also important to note that where and how you report can vary depending on your employer. For these reasons, it’s always wise to review your company’s policies and employee handbook or speak with HR to understand your employer’s reporting options. You can also consult an experienced employment attorney specializing in California labor laws. An attorney can advise you based on your claim’s specific circumstances.
How Do I Confront My Boss or Employer About Unfair Treatment?
Confronting your boss about unfairness in the workplace can be uncomfortable at best. In all cases, it is a delicate and challenging situation that requires a little savvy. The following are several steps to take that can help the reporting go more smoothly:
- Review your rights – Check California labor laws and be clear about the specific instances of unfair treatment that you want to address.
- Prepare yourself – Before approaching your boss, gather any evidence you have, such as documented incidents and any relevant company policies.
- Choose an appropriate time and place – Find a suitable time to discuss the matter with your boss privately. Request a meeting or schedule a time in a neutral location when you can have an uninterrupted conversation and express yourselves freely.
- Stay calm and professional – Approach the conversation calmly and act respectfully and professionally throughout the discussion, even if you feel upset or frustrated.
- Express your concerns – Use factual examples and refer to any documented evidence while clearly and concisely explaining the unfair treatment you’ve experienced. Focus on the impact of unfair treatment on your work environment and how it’s affected your ability to perform your job effectively.
- Request a resolution – Clarify what you would like to happen to address the unfairness. This could include changes in behavior, improved communication, or a request for specific actions to rectify the situation.
- Listen and ask for clarification – Allow your boss to respond and provide their perspective and suggestions. Listen attentively to their feedback or explanations and ask them to clarify any unclear points but be sure to stand up for yourself and express what you think is a fair resolution.
- Follow up in writing – After meeting with your boss or HR rep, send a follow-up email summarizing the discussion and any actions you both agreed on. An email is a written record and helps keep your employer accountable.
Remember, confronting your employer can result in different outcomes depending on the unfairness you experience, the individual you speak to, and your circumstances. If your employer ignores your concerns or the unfair treatment continues, you may need to consult an employment attorney. An experienced attorney can assess your situation and help you explore your rights and potential legal avenues.
What Legal Protections Do I Have If I Report My Employer?
Understandably, California employees experiencing unfair workplace treatment often hesitate to report or speak up because they fear retaliation. Luckily, California laws safeguard employees who report unfair treatment. These laws are called “whistleblower protections.” Several examples include:
- California Whistleblower Protection Act,
- California Labor Code Section 1102.5,
- California Labor Code Section 6310,
- California Labor Code Section 232, and
- California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).
These protections can vary depending on your specific circumstances. Because whistleblower laws can be complicated, it’s always best to consult an employment attorney specializing in California employment laws. When you’re in doubt, an employment attorney can explain the law and your legal rights and guide you through the complaints process.
What Happens After I File a Complaint?
After you file an unfair treatment complaint in California, the reporting body—for example, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH)—will typically assess the complaint to determine if there is jurisdiction. It will also ensure the complaint is timely and that it concerns the violation of a right or law these agencies enforce. If the complaint meets these criteria, the agency will serve your employer with a notice informing them of the complaint. Your employer will then have a chance to respond and present their side of the story.
If the case proceeds, the presiding agency will conduct a formal investigation. This can involve interviewing witnesses, examining documents or other evidence, and working with both parties to understand the situation. The agency may offer or require the parties to mediate or conciliate to resolve the complaint without going to court. A neutral third party who helps the parties resolve the issue typically facilitates mediation. If you and your employer cannot agree on an outcome, the agency will decide based on evidence it reviews during the investigation.
If the agency determines that discrimination occurred, it can file a lawsuit on your behalf or issue you a right-to-sue notice, allowing you to file a lawsuit on your own. If the agency or a court decides your employer discriminated against you, remedies can include compensatory damages, punitive damages, back pay, reinstatement, disciplinary actions, policy changes, and other types of relief.
Talk to an Experienced Employment Lawyer
The most important thing you can do when you feel like your employer is mistreating you is to speak with an experienced lawyer. Here at King & Siegel LLP, all of our compassionate attorneys are skilled in helping employees navigate unfair treatment at work. We’ve collected millions of dollars in settlements for our clients and will fight tirelessly for the justice you deserve. We provide free consultations and would be happy to speak with you. Call us today at 213-652-6261.