Texas is an at-will employment state, which means that employers can hire workers with or without a written contract, and unless the employee has signed a contract guaranteeing him or her employment until a certain date, your employer can fire you at any time, and for any reason, or even for no reason at all. This does not mean, however, that an employer can simply hide behind at-will employment laws as an excuse for firing an employee for complaining about unfair treatment or because of the employee’s race, religion, or some other protected characteristic. In other words, even in an at will employment state like Texas, employment discrimination and employer retaliation are still against the law. Filing a discrimination lawsuit against your employer is more complicated than you might expect. If you are experiencing discrimination at work or if your employer fired you for a discriminatory reason, the Houston discrimination lawyers at HKM Employment Attorneys, LLP, can help you seek legal remedies.
What is a Protected Characteristic?
In the United States as in many other countries, laws prohibit employers from refusing to hire workers because of certain physical characteristics of the worker or certain aspects of the worker’s family background or personal history. These are called protected characteristics. The following are recognized as protected characteristics under federal and state laws:
- Race, ethnicity, skin color, or hair texture
- Sex, gender presentation, gender identity, or sexual orientation
- Marital status, pregnancy, being a parent, or not being a parent
- Religion or lack of religious affiliation
- National origin or country of citizenship (except some federal jobs restricted to U.S. citizens)
- Age (for employees and job applicants above the age of 40)
- Current or former military status (except for jobs within the U.S. Armed Forces restricted to military personnel)
- Documented or perceived disability
There are still some reasons that employers can summarily exclude a job applicant. For example, for all except some federal jobs, employers may not exclude non-citizens of the United States and may not give preference to U.S. citizens or to people born in the United States over naturalized citizens, but all employees must have legal authorization to work in the United States. Even at federal jobs and military jobs open only to U.S. citizens, employers cannot give people born in the United States preferential treatment over naturalized citizens. Employers can also disqualify job applicants because of information revealed in criminal background checks. Employers can also reject applicants who lack the necessary credentials for the position, but the employer should be as specific as possible in the job posting about which credentials the position requires.
Which Actions Count as Discrimination?
Lots of workers probably have the impression that their supervisor does not have a high opinion of them, and the employee’s race or another protected characteristic may play a role in this, but this is not specific enough to count as employment discrimination. The simple fact that you have never seen your supervisor crack a smile when you talk to him, but he is noticeably more cheerful in interacting with one of your coworkers is not sufficient grounds to file a discrimination complaint.
An employer’s conduct rises to the level of discrimination if the employer takes one or more adverse actions against the employee because of the protected characteristic. Examples of adverse actions include the following:
- Refusal to hire
- Denial of promotions and raises
- Harassment or hostile work environment
- Demotion or involuntary transfer to a less desirable role, work location, or schedule
- Termination of employment
Hostile work environment is both the simplest and the most complicated kind of discrimination to prove. On the one hand, it is easy to tell that the harassment is related to your protected characteristic; if your supervisor often says in your presence that women are less intelligent than men or that you are less intelligent than your male colleagues, this is a clear instance of sex discrimination. On the other hand, there may or may not be other witnesses to this harassment; perhaps you have never heard your supervisor say those things to other coworkers.
As for demotions, termination of employment, and the like, it is easy to prove when they happened, but it is more challenging to prove why they happened. You may be able to show patterns in the workplace. In a diverse city like Houston, if certain races are excluded from a large company, then there may be others like you who applied to work there but were rejected because of their race. Likewise, within a company with a diverse staff, is one race overrepresented in the most highly compensated positions.
Filing a Discrimination Complaint
Just because you have evidence of discrimination in your workplace, it does not mean that you are ready to file an employment discrimination lawsuit; there are some legal prerequisites, anyway. You should write detailed notes about the harassment or other discriminatory behavior as it happens so that you have a timeline with which to corroborate other evidence that you find. Then you should meet with an employment discrimination lawyer, both before and after you approach the human resources department at your organization. If things do not get better after your meeting with HR, which they usually do not, your lawyer will help you contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC will conduct an investigation, and only after it determines that you have grounds to file a discrimination lawsuit against your employer can you take your case to court.
The deadlines in employment discrimination cases are tight, and your employer might try to intimidate you when they find out that you are planning to sue. People have the right to represent themselves in many kinds of legal actions, but employment discrimination cases are one type of legal action where you should hire a lawyer.
Contact HKM Employment Attorneys, LLP, About Employment Discrimination
The Houston employment lawyers at HKM Employment Attorneys, LLP can help you if you are experiencing discrimination in your workplace. Contact the employment lawyers at HKM Employment Attorneys, LLP, in Houston, Texas, to set up a consultation.