When it comes to employment, there are two basic truths. First of all, everyone expects to be fairly treated at work. Secondly, many people suffer unfair treatment. It’s unfortunate, but it happens. A place of employment can be an unkind environment. There are also various degrees of unfair treatment at work, and not all of it is grounds for legal action.
As an employer, it goes without saying that all of your employees should be treated with fairness and respect. Each employee should be afforded opportunities for pay raises, promotions, and other opportunities based on their specific job performance. In a perfect world, this would always be the case. However, employers don’t always view their employee’s performance the same way as their employees do.
What is Considered Unfair Treatment?
Unfair treatment at work may include being passed over for a promotion or better opportunity because of nepotism, favoritism or office politics. It can even include a manager who is a bully and raises his voice frequently, for apparently no reason. You get the point. Other types of unfair treatment include unequal enforcement of rules, unequal assignments or unfair standards. While all of these may be considered unfair treatment, there isn’t a law against it in the workplace.
Florida is an at-will employment state, meaning that an employer can take any action they want towards an employee for any reason, or no reason at all. In other words, employees can be disciplined, demoted, transferred or terminated at any time.
Differences Between Unfair Treatment and Unlawful Conduct
Legal claims can only arise when the unfair treatment at work violates a specific law, an employment contract, or when it is so severe that it becomes actionable as a common law civil harm, like assault, threats, restraint, etc. It is also illegal to treat someone in an unfair way (discrimination or harassment), because of any of their protected characteristics such as age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, maternity and pregnancy, race, religion or belief, sex or sexual orientation. Harassment includes physical or psychological behavior that alters the work environment for the target and thereby makes it difficult or uncomfortable at work.
Exceptions to the Law
There are certain times when an employer may legally discriminate even though a person may otherwise be protected under the law, however, these cases are rare. Examples where an exception might apply include:
An employer may reject an applicant or fire an employee where a conviction record or new conviction is substantially related to the job.
Certain physically dangerous jobs may set maximum age requirements.
An employer may prevent a person from directly supervising his/her spouse.
Employment of a individual with a certain disability may present a significant risk of real harm to the health or safety of that individual or others.
How Can it Be Proven?
It can be difficult to interpret when unfair treatment at work crosses the line of legality and turns to unlawful behavior. Employees will need to document all cases in which they suspect an employer is displaying unlawful treatment. Detailed notes, along with details about potential eyewitnesses are critical to proving that discrimination or unlawful harassment occurred.
Likewise, employers should document all disciplinary actions against an employee and have witnesses present when these actions take place. A solid paper trail can be the margin between winning a case or disproving the complaint.
When an Employee Accuses You of Unfair Treatment
As employers, we like to think that our employees will always be content and productive. We strive to create an environment where everyone enjoys the work they do, but disagreements regularly arise. It is important that you have legal counsel that understands labor and employment law and has experience with discrimination and other employment issues.
I’m Rob Robinson, and for nearly 30 years I have been practicing labor and employment law for both private and public employers in Southwest Florida. I can advise your company on termination issues and represent you when complaints are filed. I have extensive experience in wrongful termination cases and defending discrimination claims, among other employment-related claims. My goal is to guide you through the employment litigation process in order to minimize costs and seek an early resolution.