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Dealing with Racist Coworkers Legally in California

Updated: Apr 23

California employment law on racial discrimination at work

If you are treated differently and unfairly at work on the basis of your race, then you have a workplace discrimination claim. While some incidents may be outwardly obvious from the get-go, a lot of discriminatory behavior can be subtle. A prescreened California Lawyer might be able to help you seek damages.

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It is already one thing for a coworker to loudly throw slurs and offensive jokes; it is another to be given more workload than your colleagues. When someone shouts slurs, you know you are being accosted. When you're unfairly getting more tenuous tasks compared to your coworkers, you're still unsure if you have a genuine discrimination claim.

Here are anecdotal examples to help you figure it out:

  • The employer promotes other employees of a different race, even when you are more eligible for it.

  • Your employer or fellow coworkers initiate or tolerate the constant use of offensive jokes and slurs.

  • Hiring officer obviously favors one race or ethnicity over others.

  • Your complaints are not heard by HR, but the department will consider others'.

  • You are the receiving end of derogatory remarks that specifically target characteristics prominent in people of your race or ethnicity.

  • Office or workplace laws the prohibit the use of your native language or dialect.

  • Your race is considered for employment decisions; i.e., hiring, layoffs, terminations, and suspensions.

Workplace Discrimination is Illegal

Any form of job discrimination is considered an unlawful act, especially when protected characteristics (as defined by Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) are the cause of the target's suffering. These protected traits can be any one of the following:

  • Race

  • Color

  • National origin

  • Religion

  • Sex

  • Disability

  • Age (40 and older)

  • Sexual orientation

  • Genetic information

A lot of cases also involve victims being discriminated against for more than one protected characteristic. Although, regardless of it being one or many, it's still illegal to do so in the workplace.

Discrimination (in any form) in the workplace can be extremely damaging for employees, particularly when it leads to wrongful termination, harassment, or retaliation for complaints. Employees should be aware that both federal and state laws exist to protect workers from discrimination in the workplace. These laws protect all employees and cover a number of discrimination categories that courts have recognized as legal.

"Disparate Treatment" vs. "Disparate Impact"

Here are terms that can also help you identify the discrimination you might be experiencing at work:

"Disparate treatment" refers to cases in which ethnicity (or other protected characteristic) is a factor in how one employee is treated compared to another. This is more straightforward. This is classic racism, where biases and prejudices are thrown at a person to the point that it impacts the target's day-to-day life.

These are also considered disparate treatments:

  • You are discriminated against by association. If you are fired, suspended, or your salary was reduced because you are associated with someone who has a protected characteristic (and there is explicit evidence of the protected characteristic being the reason), then it is still an illegal action. If you were fired because you married a Latino man, and there is evidence that it is the actual reason, then you have a discrimination claim.

  • You are discriminated against for perceived protected characteristics. If you were fired or penalized by a manager because they mistook you for someone with a protected characteristic, then it is still discriminatory. If you didn't get the job for the sole explicit reason that the hiring team thought you were African-American, then it is a case of employment discrimination.

The term "disparate impact" refers to established or implemented employment policies or practices that, although seemingly benign on the surface, have a discriminatory impact on the employees.

An example of this is when workplace policies willfully make it difficult for people who use public transportation to do their jobs, all while it's very clear that one ethnic minority heavily relies on public transportation. Disparate impact circumstances aren't necessarily discriminatory, or may not be the intent behind them, but the repercussions have racist undertones.

What Should Employers Be Doing?

Resolve concerns as soon as possible. If you receive a complaint alleging race discrimination, you must investigate the allegations, determine whether they are true, and take corrective action. This is not only mandated by statute, but it will also illustrate to employees that such grievances will not be ignored. Oftentimes, setting aside or postponing the time you'll look into the issue suggests the lack of concern and empathy.

Create robust and straightforward policies. An equality policy in the employee handbook should explicitly state that decisions regarding recruitment, promotion, firing, and other aspects of employment are not made on the basis of a person's race, age, sex, or any other protected characteristic. This should be followed by a workplace policy that holds importance to treating people with respect. Declare the workplace free of intimidation and harassment, and make sure it stays that you. Employers should reiterate that complaints and reports would be taken seriously, with disciplinary action if necessary.

Encourage a Diverse and Inclusive Work Environment. Encourage workers to report any racist actions or behaviors they observe or experience. Employees can be unable to speak up for a variety of reasons, including shame or fear of the repercussions, so it's critical that they believe their complaints will be taken seriously and handled in a sensitive and confidential manner.

Monitor Employees. Remind workers that it is their duty to ensure that their actions do not offend others and that they must immediately stop if they are told that their actions are unwelcome or offensive. Employees pay attention to their actions and how their comments can affect others' feelings.

Managers should be trained. Those in positions of management must be aware of the various types of discrimination, how they occur, and how to respond to any incidents that arise. They'll also need to hear about the company's internal practices, such as grievance and disciplinary procedures.

What are the Laws the Protect You?

Federal Laws

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act is the most important law that addresses racial discrimination. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was one of the most significant achievements of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and it sought to achieve equality for African-Americans in all aspects of society. The law, however, also applies to all racial minorities, including Latinos and Asians.

Companies that have hired 15 or more employees are covered by Title VII's anti-discrimination protections. It addresses all aspects of employment, such as hiring, firing, promotion, pay, and benefits. Discrimination in creating decisions for any of these is illegal.

Most states also have laws prohibiting racism in the workplace that are even broader. For example, the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) in California applies to employers with five or more full-time or part-time employees.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

If you believe you have ever been a target of workplace racism, the first step toward filing a formal legal complaint is to file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC is the primary federal agency in charge of racial discrimination claims in the workplace. The EEOC will look into your claims and decide whether or not to take action.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has helped forward cases that have amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars in damages or compensation. If the EEOC finally decides not to take action in your case, they give a "right to sue," which is essentially permission to file lawsuits with a California Employment Attorney.

California Laws

California has one of the broadest protection laws when it comes to workplace discrimination claims. Other than the protected classes already identified by the EEOC, Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA)—based in California—have added to and broadened the number of protected classes.

Other the ones from EEOC, here are more that FEHA has identified:

  • Ancestry

  • Physical or mental disability

  • Gender identity and expression

  • Sexual orientation

  • Marital status

  • AIDS/HIV status

  • Medical illnesses and condition

  • Military or veteran status

  • Political participation or affiliations

  • History of abuse, i.e., domestic violence, sexual or physical assault, stalking

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What are the Payable Damages for a Workplace Discrimination Claim?

If you are successful in proving your claims, here's a list of the possible compensation you may be able to collect:

  • Any unpaid wages, whether in advance or retroactively, that are due to the victim

  • Any unpaid salaries with interest

  • Re-employment, if the plaintiff so desired

  • Promotion, if deserved or warranted

  • Wages and benefits that have not been received

  • Damages caused by pain and suffering, as well as mental distress

  • Possible punitive damages

The total monetary compensation available in these cases will be determined by proof or facts presented in court. More evidence helps, so it's best to gather as much as you can as soon as possible. The other factor is how well your workplace discrimination attorney in Los Angeles handles the case, including his presentation and level of communication with you as a client.

How Do I Prove Workplace Racial Discrimination?

It's important to keep track of any racist behavior wherever possible. This is particularly true when the behavior is ingrained in the company's culture. Written proof is preferable, but witness testimony from coworkers may also be useful.