Regardless of where someone works, their position, or how much money they make, every employee deserves to be treated with professionalism, respect, and fairness. However, in some workplaces, disrespect and cruelty run rampant. Lack of respect can turn into unfair treatment, which can become unlawful discrimination. To understand what is considered legally actionable, let’s take a look at what is considered unfair treatment in the workplace.
Unfair treatment is unkind, inequitable, or improper treatment of an employee, either by another employee or by upper management. Unfair treatment can range from cruelly worded emails or rude comments to being left out of meetings or fired for the wrong reasons. This can reduce productivity and team morale, often leading to upticks in resignation and difficulty retaining employees. Ultimately, unfair treatment creates what is known as a toxic work environment—but what can employees do?
The problem is that unfair treatment in the workplace is not considered illegal on its own. A colleague or an employer may be unkind to you, but that does not make it illegal or actionable. For unfair treatment to be considered illegal, it must create a hostile work environment rather than a toxic one. When unfair treatment crosses that line, it becomes unlawful treatment.
For a workplace environment to be considered hostile, the situation must consist of:
To clarify, let’s look at two examples of a similar nature that constitute two different environments.
Sarah is Paul’s supervisor, and Sarah doesn’t like Paul. She accidentally sends an email to him that was meant for someone else. It states that she wishes he would quit, that he does a terrible job, and that he just isn’t smart. She apologizes for the incident, and upper management follows through with the correct punitive action once reported.
Sarah is Paul’s supervisor, and Paul is a Black man. Sarah accidentally sends him an email meant for someone else making derogatory comments about Black people. Paul reports the incident, but upper management doesn’t do anything. Sarah, encouraged by their lack of action, continues her discriminatory behavior and feels more confident saying these things outright.
For those who are in a toxic work environment and are experiencing unfair treatment, it is best to either report the situation to HR or find another job. For those experiencing unlawful treatment and struggling to work and function in a hostile environment, hiring a work environment lawyer should be your immediate next step. You should never be made to feel afraid, depressed, or anxious for fear of cruel treatment, and legal action is the best way to protect yourself and future employees.