Civil Rights

Discrimination Laws Try to Keep Up with the Times

It's hard to think of a legal battle that's been running longer than the fight against discrimination, especially employment discrimination. It's been raging since 1964 when Title VII became the law of the land. About 50 years later, some incidents show how Title VII has moved forward in some areas and has sat idle in others.

One Step Forward, Another at a Standstill

It's a bit ironic, but two cases handled in the same city show how Title VII evolves and stands still at the same time.

Employers: Watch Your Customers

Employers and employees are familiar with the laws on sexual harassment and how a hostile work environment created by supervisors and co-workers can cause big legal problems for employers. What happens if an employer's customers or patrons create a hostile work environment for an employee?

The Customer Isn't Always Right

The federal appeals court in Chicago answered the question: The employer can be liable for the patron's discrimination. The case involved a nursing home in Indiana. A patient insisted that only Caucasian nurses and aides help her. The nursing home complied with her wishes, and an African-American aide wasn't allowed to give the patient any assistance.

When the nurse was later fired for other misconduct, she filed suit under Title VII. She claimed the nursing home allowed a hostile work environment to exist by complying with the patient's racial preferences.

The federal appeals court agreed. It decided that a company's desire to cater to its customers' racial bias is not a defense to for treating employees differently based on their race.

No Help for Sexual Orientation Discrimination?

While Title VII covers discrimination based on sex and gender, it doesn't cover sexual orientation, like when an employee is fired because he's gay. However, several states make such discrimination illegal, including Illinois.

A worker in Chicago filed a complaint with the Chicago Commission on Human Relations (Commission) claiming that Jesse Jackson gave him "uncomfortable" duties to perform and ultimately fired him from the Rainbow Push Coalition because he was gay.

Jackson and the Coalition denied any wrongdoing.

Protect Yourself

Employers and employees alike need to know how to protect themselves in situations like these.

For Employers

Protect your workers from discrimination and protect yourself from costly lawsuits by:

  • Posting your sexual harassment and discrimination policy. Let your workers know they're protected from discrimination in any form based on the race, sex, etc., whether it comes from a supervisor, co-worker or customer
  • Ensuring customers know of your non-discrimination policy. If a customer insists on some sort of discriminatory preference, make sure your employees know about the customers' prejudice, or if possible, don't do business with customer
  • Telling employees how, when and where to report discrimination
  • Taking employee discrimination complaints seriously and investigating them fully

For Employees

Employees can protect themselves by:

  • Being familiar with your employer's sexual harassment and discrimination policy. If it doesn't cover customer-created discrimination, ask for the policy to be changed
  • Immediately reporting discrimination in any form to your immediate supervisor or human resources department
  • Familiarizing yourself with the laws in your state or city about discrimination, and particularly discrimination based on sexual orientation
  • Keeping notes of any discriminatory actions you experience, both from before and after you told your employer about the problem
  • Filing a complaint or charge with the EEOC or the anti-discrimination agency in your state if you think you've been discriminated against or your employer refuses to investigate your case

Fighting discrimination of any kind has never been easy, and the laws designed to help us aren't perfect. It's up to us, though, to do whatever we can whenever we can to put a stop to it and to work for a more unified workplace.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can I be fired if I report discriminatory practices?
  • Do I have to file a complaint with the EEOC before I can file a discrimination lawsuit?
  • A friend is too afraid to file a complaint. Can I file it for her?
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