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Workplace discrimination is a disparity in the treatment of individual employees based on personal or social differences. The 10 most common forms of discrimination in the workplace include age discrimination, race-based discrimination, disability discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation. When employees believe they've been discriminated against, the law allows them to seek a variety of actions that include lawsuits seeking to end such discrimination. In the U.S., workplace discrimination lawsuits typically are brought using one or a combination of three different theories.
Disparate Treatment Theory
Disparate treatment in the workplace refers to a policy or practice that explicitly treats one individual or group of individuals differently than another. Retaliation for engaging in workplace practices allowed under law is also a form of disparate treatment. A 1973 Supreme Court decision, called McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, resulted from a lawsuit that now serves as the foundation of disparate treatment theory. Essentially, employees complaining of disparate treatment must show that their employers had no legitimate reason for engaging in the alleged discrimination.
Workplace Harassment Theory
Workplace harassment occurs when unwelcome verbal or physical conduct is directed toward a person or persons on the basis of characteristics they possess. Harassment includes when employees are forced to work in hostile environments and when "this for that" arrangements are forced upon employees. The most famous workplace harassment cases revolve around sexual or racial issues and include Chopourian v. Catholic Healthcare West. In 2012 physician assistant Ani Chopourian was awarded $168 million on a sexual harassment complaint against CHW, her employer.
Disability Accommodation Theory
Disabled employees are entitled to reasonable workplace accommodations unless such accommodations present undue hardship for employers. Employers failing to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities who can perform their essential job functions with or without accommodation may be engaging in discrimination. Workplace disability discrimination lawsuits typically involve the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA. Sutton v. United Airlines, a 1999 Supreme Court case, requires employees to prove they indeed qualify for ADA's employment protections, which had been easier to do prior to 1999.
Workplace Discrimination Lawsuits
Employees and applicants fearing workplace discrimination can seek help from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and state-level agencies. Employees or job applicants who believe they've suffered workplace discrimination also are free to consult with attorneys specializing in such cases. Additionally, the CanMyBossDoThat.com website offers information resource links for employees on many employer-employee relationship issues, including possible discrimination. Employer discrimination also may be intentional or unintentional, though both forms of such behavior can place employers in jeopardy of lawsuits.
- LawFirms.com: Types of Employment Discrimination
- EEOC Training Institute: EEO 101 – The Basic Theories of Employment Discrimination
- North Carolina State University: Landmark Supreme Court Cases: McDonnell Douglas Corp v. Green
- Business Insider: The 8 Largest Sexual Harassment Verdicts In History
- Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund: Defining Disability in the Aftermath of Sutton - Where Do We Go from Here?
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Filing a Lawsuit
- Can My Boss Do That? Featured Links
Tony Guerra served more than 20 years in the U.S. Navy. He also spent seven years as an airline operations manager. Guerra is a former realtor, real-estate salesperson, associate broker and real-estate education instructor. He holds a master's degree in management and a bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies.