Discrimination, wrongful termination, hostile work environment, retaliation. These are words that I often hear during an initial client interview. While these concepts are relevant to employment law matters, they are often misunderstood by employees and employers alike.
To start, the critical element of employment discrimination is that the discriminatory act was taken because of a group that the plaintiff belongs to. In other words, if your boss hates you, then it isn’t discrimination. If your boss hates you and everyone else that shares a common trait with you, then you may have a discrimination case.
Wrongful termination is another common allegation. I often hear this in the context of someone being terminated because of a false accusation (poor job performance, excessive absenteeism, no call-no show). In Georgia, wrongful termination is basically non-existent as a cause of action. Georgia is an “at-will” employment state, meaning an employee can be fired for any reason or no reason at all. Wrongful termination occurs when an employee is fired in violation of an existing statute. In other words, unless your boss has violated your rights under another law, you have not been terminated wrongfully. If you have been terminated, consult an attorney about the facts of your case to see if your employer has violated a statute.
Of all employment law terms, hostile work environment is probably the most commonly misused. A hostile work environment exists when the harassment is so severe and pervasive that the conditions of the victim’s employment are altered. However, federal law does not prohibit the hostile environment; the law only prohibits the discriminatory conduct that creates that environment. In other words, you must still be the victim of discrimination as part of a protected class of people; that is, the harassment must be based on race, sex, country of origin, religion, age, disability, or pregnancy.
Finally, retaliation deserves to be addressed. Retaliation by employers is prohibited under a variety of federal statutes. The critical element in a retaliation claim is that the employer took an adverse action because the employee engaged in protected conduct. Generally speaking, protected conduct means reporting an illegal or unfair labor practice, testifying in court, or filing a complaint with the EEOC, but what actually constitutes protected conduct is determined by the relevant statute, and in many cases, which court you are in. For example, conduct that is protected under Title VII may not be protected under the Fair Labor Standards Act. If you have made a complaint, formal or informal, or if you are concerned about whether or not to make a complaint, consult an attorney to make sure that you are protected under federal law.