Employment Discrimination: My Boss is a Jerk; Can I Sue Him or Her?

Harassment and discrimination on the job is a real issue, with real damages, and real victims. However, not every unpleasant thing that happens on the job, not every unfavorable criticism from a supervisor is compensable by the law. Sexual or racially motivated harassment must not be tolerated in any job, and violates numerous state and federal laws which provide remedies to the victims. But the supervisor, manager, or boss who can’t seem to offer constructive criticism but only negative cuts, does not encourage or reward good work, or seems to be picking on an employee for trivial things, may be a bad boss with poor management skills and difficult to work for, but he or she hasn’t necessarily broken the law. You may feel you are working in a “hostile work environment” everyday, but the law focuses on only certain types of “hostility.” Every employee should know what their rights are, and the legal remedies available when those rights are violated.

You have a right to a safe, nonviolent work environment. You have a right to be paid the contracted wages or the legal minimum wage, for the legal amount of hours. You have a right to those employment benefits promised to you, and those rules and procedures contained in any employee manual or handbook at the time of first hiring. You have a right to work in an environment that is free of sexual harassment, and free of racial, sexual, and religious discrimination. You have the right to work at a job that does not punish you for a medical condition or disability, pre-existing or otherwise, so long as the medical condition does not prohibit you from performing your work duties. (For example, if you develop blindness, you may not be able to drive the forklift in the warehouse anymore). These are some of your basic rights, but not all of them. When in doubt, consult an attorney.

If a co-worker or supervisor makes unwanted sexual advances, suggests that sexual favors are necessary to succeed with the company, or otherwise allows or encourages male “locker room talk” such as the words attributed to our current President, then a sexually “hostile work environment” may exist, and injured workers have legal claims for redress. Gender discrimination can also take the form of termination or discipline of an employee who is pregnant, seeking pregnancy or family leave, as well as differential treatment of women compared to their male counterparts on the job. Discrimination based on racial, ethnic, or religious grounds also violates the law, but imposes a significant hurdle to overcome: direct or circumstantial proof of the discriminatory motive. A court of law must determine whether an African-American female or a Muslim male got fired for a legitimate business purpose (poor performance, breaking company rules, or a layoff of staff), or because of the color of their skin or the nature of their faith. What is in the boss’ mind, i.e., his or her motive, can be difficult to prove. Again, consult an attorney when in doubt.

Most people incorrectly assume that they can only be fired for cause, or laid off due to lack of work. However, unless you are a member of a union, subject to a collective bargaining contract, a government employee, or subject to written company rules and procedures for discipline or termination, your employment is generally considered “at will.” This means that you can be fired for any reason, or no reason at all, as long as you are not fired for a prohibited reason: discrimination based upon sex (gender or orientation), race, ethnic origin, religion, medical condition or handicap (including pregnancy).

Furthermore, your employee’s manual becomes a contract, and the company must follow any disciplinary procedures set forth therein. Various agencies, such as the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), the Labor Commissioner, and the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC), are charged with investigating and prosecuting claims of employment discrimination. Each is an excellent source of information on your employment rights. However, if you think you have been wrongfully discharged from your job, you should consult with an attorney experienced in employment law.

At the Law Offices of Philip Cohen, we are prepared to answer your questions and investigate any claims of employment discrimination, harassment on the job, or wrongful termination. If you’re in the San Diego area, please contact our staff if you think you been wrongfully harassed on the job, or fired in violation of the law. We can help you get the justice you seek.