Laws such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 protect you from civil rights violations that may occur in the workplace. When you believe your civil rights have been violated, learn as much as possible about the laws that protect you and address possible violations with your supervisor or the human resources staff. This might be referred to as "getting your ducks in a row" to ensure that your employer takes the appropriate action.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division and Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the U.S. National Labor Relations Board enforce labor and employment laws to which many employers must adhere. The very nature of an employer's compliance with applicable labor and employment laws obligates the company to provide a safe working environment, free from discrimination and unlawful harassment. Therefore, your first course of action is to understand your rights and how your employer's actions may constitute civil rights violations.
Aside from your basic civil rights to fair and equal treatment in the workplace, there are several laws that protect specific rights. Within the context of labor and employment law, many employees belong to what are referred to as "protected classes." Protected classes include groups that have been historically denied employment opportunities, based on nonjob-related factors, such as age, disability, gender, national origin, race, religion and veteran status. For example, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 protects the rights of workers 40 and over from employers' decisions based on age. The ADEA and the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act, enforced by the EEOC, address injustices such as job elimination that disproportionately affect older workers.
The EEOC strongly recommends that employers develop a systematic approach to resolve informal employee complaints. If your employer has an employee handbook, it's likely to describe the process you should use for voicing your concerns. Before you march into your supervisor's office or approach the HR department with a complaint, create a list of actions that you believe violated your civil rights. You'll be much more effective and credible with concrete examples, dates, times and people involved in circumstances that you believe are unlawful. For example, if your supervisor routinely selects younger workers for plum assignments and dismisses your interest in being chosen for special projects, note the projects you have been passed over for or jobs you believe you were qualified for but didn't get because of nonjob-related factors.
Be prepared to give the HR department your statement when you file an informal complaint. An HR specialist trained to handle workplace investigations should be open to listening to your concerns and work diligently to resolve workplace matters that affect your job satisfaction, performance and productivity. Although you may be filing an informal complaint with the HR department, the steps an HR staff member takes to resolve the matter usually will begin with seemingly formal steps, such as fact-finding and legal research to determine if your civil rights have, in fact, been violated.
You always have the right to engage legal counsel to represent you if you feel you won't be taken seriously by your employer or if you believe your employer will ignore your complaint. However, should you decide to speak to a government official, such as someone with the EEOC, you can file a formal complaint to enlist the aid of that agency in helping you get to the bottom of your workplace issues.
When you decide to speak up against workplace inequities, separate your emotion from the issues because that can improve your chances of working towards a resolution without unnecessary drama. Refrain from threatening your employer with legal action, even if you have contacted a lawyer. Employees who create an adversarial relationship from the outset may have such a negative affect on the employer-employee relationship that it's impossible for the parties to discuss their concerns reasonably or mediate their differences. Don't try to garner support from your colleagues by discussing the details of your complaint or petitioning them for support of your claims.
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Laws Enforced by EEOC
- FindLaw: Have Your Civil Rights Been Violated?
- Strategic HR-ManagEase: Workplace Harassment: Frequently Asked Questions
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Enforcement Guidance on Vicarious Employer Liability for Unlawful Harassment by Supervisors
Ruth Mayhew has been writing since the mid-1980s, and she has been an HR subject matter expert since 1995. Her work appears in "The Multi-Generational Workforce in the Health Care Industry," and she has been cited in numerous publications, including journals and textbooks that focus on human resources management practices. She holds a Master of Arts in sociology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Ruth resides in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.