The Fine Print – Uncomfortable in the Workplace


“Dear Attorney,

I work for a medium size company and for the last five years it has been a great place to work.  However, lately I have begun to feel uncomfortable with the way a manager and a few co-workers think it is funny to make comments about race, sexual orientation, etc., of other colleagues I work with.  I do not believe they intend to be discriminatory, but it does make me as well as my colleagues very uncomfortable.  Since we are a smaller company there is no ‘human resources’ department.  Is there anything I can do?” – Uncomfortable in Mint Hill


Dear Uncomfortable,

It is unfortunate work has become uncomfortable thanks to a select group of people, who may or may not realize their conduct has created a negative environment.  Discrimination is insidious and demoralizing even if you are the not the target of the conduct, or the offender does not “intend” for his/ her conduct to be discriminatory.

Federal law prohibits discrimination by an employer against an applicant or employee on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, pregnancy, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. Federal law applies to hiring, firing, promotions, harassment, training, wages, and benefits.  It is also illegal to discriminate against a person because the person complained about discrimination or participated in an employment discrimination investigation/lawsuit.  The law covers most employers with 15 or more employees (age discrimination requires 20).  North Carolina’s primary statute is the Equal Employment Practices Act, which states it is public policy to “protect and safeguard the right and opportunity of all persons to seek, obtain and hold employment without discrimination.”  While Federal and NC law are similar, NC has significant exceptions and special rules for certain situations.

In response to your question on what to do, first I suggest you try directly approaching the company owner or upper management by scheduling a meeting.  Even though you state based upon personal observation you do not believe the conduct is intended to be discriminatory, it is clear management  needs to address the issue.  A training program, clear guidelines in an employee manual, and management privately addressing the individuals involved may result in a cessation of the discriminatory comments.  Prior to the meeting, document specific examples of the conduct so you are organized in your thought process and can back up your statements.  You may also consider having a conversation with one or more of the offending colleagues about the discriminatory commentary.  I cannot say the conversation will not be awkward, but the effect of polite yet direct communication cannot be understated.  In sixteen years of practicing law, I can say some people are truly clueless about their conduct, but others need to be reminded the law does not permit them to discriminate.  If none of the above is an option or if neither of these approaches is successful, I recommend you contact an attorney with experience in employment law to discuss the matter based upon the specific conduct involved to determine what remedies may be available under NC and Federal law.

Laura H. Budd, Esq. is a managing partner experienced in civil litigation and contract law at Weaver | Budd, Attorneys at Law.  To schedule a consultation with her, please call (704) 841-0760. The information contained in this article is general in nature and not to be taken as legal advice, nor to establish an attorney-client relationship between the reader and Laura H. Budd or Weaver | Budd, Attorneys at Law.

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