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Employment Discrimination Blog

Thursday, December 26, 2019

When Jokes, Nicknames and Pranks Become Harassment

Many types of behavior that used to be acceptable in the workplace are now recognized as illegal as well as intolerable. Laughing at, bullying, or discriminating against those you work with is no longer considered an unavoidable aspect of some workplace environments. Today, a great many workers are rising up, with the assistance of committed, well-schooled employment discrimination attorneys, to defend themselves in court against the painful treatment they used to feel they had to endure in order to keep their jobs. It is essential to understand, however, that rude or unpleasant behavior is not sufficient cause for a lawsuit -- the misconduct must target you as a member of a protected class to be in violation of the law.

Don’t Let Yourself Remain a Victim

In spite of the federal and state laws now on the books (e.g. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Equality Act of 2019), too many employees, still steeped in “old school” culture, continue to submit to harassment and abuse, unaware that, even while in a subsidiary position, they have the legal right to work in an atmosphere free of insult and discomfort. It is crucial for everyone on the job, workers and employers alike, to understand that every individual in the workplace is entitled to respect and fair treatment regardless of their:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Sex (gender identity, sexual orientation, pregnancy)
  • Country of origin
  • Age
  • Disability
  • Genetic information (including family medical history)

Although it may be rude, your coworkers or supervisor may make fun of your large feet or patterned socks with relative impunity, but they may not tease you about your skin color or religious headgear, or imitate your accent or your limp. The latter are off-limits because they are related to protected characteristics. Calling you “Red” because you’re a redhead is acceptable. Calling you “Grandpa” because you’re over 60 is not. Leaving a pile of pennies on your desk because you’re known to be overly thrifty may be acceptable; hanging a noose on your lamp is an outrage and, in at least three states, is a hate crime.

Your Employer Cannot Retaliate If You File a Complaint

It is also important to understand that as a worker you are not only entitled to a workplace free of harassment and discrimination, but you are legally protected from retaliation if you file a complaint with your company’s Human Resources Department, or if you hire an employment attorney to take your case to court. This means that you cannot be demoted, terminated or otherwise punished for complaining about unfair treatment.

Distinguishing Harassment and Discrimination from Allowable Favoritism or Dislike

No one likes to feel like a loser, but being passed over for a raise because your boss considers you lazy, however unpleasant or untrue, is not considered discriminatory behavior. However, if she or he voices the opinion that you are “lazy like all Mexicans, Albanians, or African Americans,” you have a case of discrimination.

By the same token, if the boss favors one of your coworkers because that individual has a more outgoing personality than you do or because she is an animal lover, you have no substantive grounds for complaint. If your boss favors her because she is Christian and you are Muslim, however, you are likely dealing with discriminatory behavior. When intimidation, ridicule, or discrimination is based on race, national origin, disability or any other protected category, federal and state anti-discrimination laws are being violated.

Proving your case is not as easy as it might seem. This is why having the support and guidance of an experienced employment discrimination attorney is likely to make all the difference when you’re trying to put together a case that will hold up in a court of law. Your lawyer will advise you to keep a record of objectionable words and actions.

A collection of post-its with slurs, offensive cartoons posted on a bulletin board, hate symbols, derogatory jokes, perks extended to other workers who are sexually compliant when you do not receive benefits you are entitled to, mimicry that makes fun of your awkward movements due to cerebral palsy -- all of these should be noted with dates and times, recorded, videotaped or photographed if possible. You should also keep a record of witnesses who may be willing to backup your account of events.

You Are Not Alone in Your Struggle for Just Treatment

Never believe that you have no alternative to putting up with unfair, obnoxious, or threatening behavior. Remember that the law is on your side and seek a legal representative who will fight for your dignity and just treatment.


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