A lot of clients come to me, often after being fired, telling me their boss discriminated against them. Their boss is ‘racist’ they say. However, discrimination and illegal firing of employers is very specific and often hard to prove.
Let’s start with what the general rights of an employee and having a job are. Most employees are at-will employees. This means an employer can fire an employee at any time for any reason. Employees must understand that they have no legal right to be employed by the employer. Once you start from this basic fact, it is easier to understand what rights employers do have.
When it comes to workplace discrimination, we need to understand what discrimination is. Illegal discrimination applies only to certain ‘protected classes’ of people. In Illinois, these protected classes are:
- Sexual harassment
- National origin
- Age (40 and over)
- Order of protection status
- Marital status
- Sexual orientation
- Unfavorable military discharge
- Military status
- Retaliation (for opposing discrimination)
- Arrest record
- Citizenship status
- Gender identity
- Language (not related to job duties)
- Coercion/Aiding and abetting (Helping or forcing a person to discriminate)
If you believe you are being discriminated against for anything outside the above categories, then that is probably not illegal. Yes, perhaps you got fired or demoted because your boss does not like you, but that is still legal, unfair as it may be. It is also usually legal in Illinois for an employer to treat an employee differently (or fire) because the employee is overweight or ‘looks’ differently (outside of a recognized disability). I say ‘usually’ because an exception to ‘legal discrimination’ is if an employer’s policy disproportionately affects a class of employees. For example, if an employer fires everyone with certain political views and it disproportionately affects employees of a certain national origin, this may make an otherwise legal policy illegal.
At this point, you may be asking yourself for reasons can your employer fire you for, legally, in a discriminatory fashion. Those reasons are:
- Employer does not like you
- Your political views
- The way you look
- Your weight
- Your personality
- For no reason at all
Even if it appears that an employer illegally discriminated against an employer, the employer must prove it. This is very hard as employers will rarely admit to it and will often mask the discrimination with a legitimate reason for the firing or other employment-related act. One of the most common reasons for clients coming to me is the belief that the employer is racist. However, if half of the staff is of the same race as the fired employee, proving to a court that the employer discriminated against the employee for that reason is going to be very hard to prove. Moreover, if the employer can demonstrate with evidence poor performance or other work-related problems regarding that employee, the employee will likely not succeed on a discrimination claim.
The bottom line about discrimination in the workplace is that the discrimination is only related to certain categories of discrimination and proving the discrimination can be very difficult. Workplace discrimination is still a big problem and many employees have legitimate claims, but employees should be aware of the hurdles that face them. Every case is different and the slightest difference of facts can make or break your case so it’s always best to consult an attorney to assess your own case.