The one thing you need to know about me is that I don't stand for injustice of any kind. I had an interesting childhood that left me feeling alone, and it taught me to stick up to bullies & advocate for myself—I was in three fistfights in high school standing up to bullies. Fighting isn't the answer, but my advocacy against these bullies landed me there.
If someone is calling you difficult, it's because they can't manipulate you.
What to do if you're being discriminated against or harassed at work
Now that I've shared a bit about my stories, it's time to give you the tips I've learned working through these situations. Disclaimer: I am not an attorney; I do not understand the laws. I do, however, understand what my attorneys have shared with me, and I'm sharing that with all of you.
If you think you're being discriminated against or harassed, document everything before saying a word to anyone. Capture any forms of communications that showcase this behavior and store them safely. Do not store them on your work computer; ensure they're in a personal storage solution or device you can access if you're terminated or rage-quit. Don't quit, but we'll get to that shortly. There are laws against recording people without their acknowledgment—however, many people record Zoom meetings and other conversations for future insights later. Lean into that. You can auto-record most video meetings and it will inform the other parties. It's up to them to ask you to stop.
One disclaimer here, you may have signed an employment agreement making these actions illegal—think about company assets and what your agreement states around maintaining that outside of company-approved locations. If this ends up being the case, my recommendation here is to seek legal counsel, but also to retain only records that showcase the discrimination and remove or blackout any proprietary company information first. The goal here is to have the assets that will allow you to tell your story, and if need be, provide proof in court. Illegal proof won't hold up in court, but the facts will leave your brain quickly due to the trauma.
Report this behavior
Once you've captured proof and have your documentation, compile your story for reporting. I will tell you this, sharing your emotions directly doesn't usually land well with HR and others. Businesses care about themselves. HR is taught to do what is best for the company, not for you. Be prepared before you do this, and seek legal counsel if you feel uneasy about your report.
A few tips for your report
- Make your report in writing, including factual details you've gained from your documentation. Do not share the documentation. Send this to your manager and HR. Do not let this happen in-person or 1:1—this needs to be documented.
- Begin with the business impact—how is this behavior adversely affecting their business.
- After you drive home the impact to the business, share how this is adversely affecting your work and your ability to successfully thrive in your role.
- Stay diplomatic. Keep your composure and save the rants and anger for your personal time. Try meditation or ranting on your preferred platform.
- If you want to rant on socials, check back to your employment agreement and/or social media policy you may have signed. You may be breaching your contract if you do so. I recommend not mentioning your company and offenders. Stick to your truth, but keep it vague.
- If you need to get it off your chest, find a therapist or turn to a friend or loved one to share your story. Do not keep it in—it will consume you.
- Depending on the severity of your situation, you may also file a claim with the EEOC. They can help you move forward if your company chooses not to take action. Hint: research the laws, in California employers are required to take action on harassment claims immediately and a failure to do so is breaking the law.
Speak to an attorney
I can not stress this enough, speak to an attorney before you quit or if you're feeling uneasy in any way. The right lawyers take these kinds of cases under contingency and will provide a consult to validate your case for free. Do not pay an attorney—yet. Keep searching until you find one that will at least hear your story without a fee—they exist.
I've spoken to many attorneys, far too many. Don't settle until you feel safe and confident with the one you select. If your employer is out of California, there are many excellent options, and the laws are on your side more than in other states. Find an attorney in the headquartered location of your employer.
Whatever you do, don't quit. You lose all legal rights and options when you voluntarily leave the company. I know this is absolute garbage. We have to stick it out just so we can get justice, but the laws for employee rights really suck, at least in the United States. I plan to spend a significant amount of time advocating for stronger employee rights and legislature, but for now, this is how it is. Some cases may still have legal opportunities if you voluntarily leave, but it's rare. Did I mention, don't quit, at least not until you've spoken with an attorney first.
Don't sign anything
Many employers ask employees to sign termination or separation agreements. These are rarely beneficial to you. If they're threatening compensation, benefits, stock options, or RSU's—essentially anything stated in your employment offer letter, retain an attorney and stand your ground. They have already legally agreed to provide these to you. To take this further, they can not legally hold back your base compensation. There are laws around your final compensation—do your research. You may be owed funds if this compensation is delayed.
Don't take the hush money
Following up on not signing anything, they may offer a compensation package for your silence or "easy departure." I know it's tempting. I almost took it with situation #3, but instead, I told the head of HR to fly the coop when he called me at 8 pm at night, threatening me. I know it's scary, but consult an attorney before you sign anything or take the hush money. You may not have a case, and if that is the situation, your attorney may encourage you to take what you can get or help find a way to get a better offer. FYI: Without a valid case for a lawsuit, you may be required to pay your attorney to help you obtain a better offer.
I promise you I am not coming from a place of privilege when I say to not take the money. We're a one-income family, and we live just within our means—we chose this life, and I am not ashamed of that. My family had the worst year of our lives last year during situation #3, and our bank account was negative on many occasions (our savings is still long gone, and we're stuck renting because of it). That's scary as all get out, especially when you have kids, but you will regret taking the money, and an attorney can help you understand what you should do here. For your emotional sanity, it's a better place to be.
Ask for your employee file
If you're terminated or leave your role, be sure to ask for your employee file immediately. There are laws that vary per state, but companies are required to provide your employee personnel file on request. I was smart enough to request my employee file the day I was wrongfully terminated. I requested that it arrive by the end-of-day—which it arrived the next day—but I now have that documentation (which doesn't include any of the false claims they made in their response to my attorney's demand letter).
Remember, you aren't the problem
You have every right to be respected, to feel safe in your job, and to be treated fairly. Don't stand for anything less than fair treatment. If you need some courage here, I'm just an email or Twitter DM away. Many underrepresented groups are tagged with biases and assumptions, this is not okay, and you deserve better. If you're blaming yourself, find a therapist. Discrimination, harassment, and mistreatment should never be something you brush under the rug.
I am not an attorney
I want to reiterate that I am not an attorney, and I am not familiar with our legal system. I am, however, someone who has been through this a time or two, or three, and want to ensure that no other humans go through what I've been through. Consult an attorney if you're being harassed, mistreated, or discriminated against, or otherwise, to better understand your options for moving forward.