By: Michelle Patrick, Esq.
Sadly, the answer is “it depends.” The employment laws in our country do not require that employees treat each other nicely or with respect. Nor do they specifically outlaw bullying. What they do provide is that an employee not be treated differently from other employees because he/she is a member of a protected class. Protected classes include race, age, sex, religion, national original, pregnancy and disability, and under some laws, sexual orientation.
Take, for example, a male manager who excludes a female subordinate from meetings, does not respond to her emails and regularly belittles her with comments like “you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Is she being bullied? Most of us would say yes. Is she being bullied to the extent of having a legal claim for harassment or employment discrimination? The answer is “it depends.” If the manager treats all of his employees, male and female, the same way, then there is likely no claim. However, if the manager excludes only women from meetings, routinely responds to men’s emails and makes more specific gender-based belittling comments like “typical female, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” while not verbally demeaning men, then the female subordinate may have a discrimination claim based on sex.
Imagine the case where a manager has a total of 5 direct reports, 3 Caucasian and 2 African-American. What if that manager treats everyone badly, an equal opportunity harasser? Again, there is probably no claim and it’s time for the offended employees to move onto an employer with standards of decency. However, if the manager treats only the African-American employees differently, then they may have a claim for race discrimination.
Employment discrimination cases are extremely fact intensive, no two cases are the same, which is why it is extremely important to talk to an employment attorney to determine if you have a case.