Deciphering at-work discrimination

Employees who suspect bias on the job have recourse with several agencies.
Tuesday, April 27, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:12 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 5, 2008

It’s an easy excuse, saying an employee was late one time too many and earned a pink slip. But watchdogs say this is a common justification to cover up job discrimination.

The St. Louis and Kansas City offices of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission review discrimination cases for Missouri, Kansas and southern Illinois.

Last year, the offices handled 12,000 cases of discrimination in the workplace. In 2,500 of these cases, charges were filed against employers.

Lynn Bruner, the director of the St. Louis office, breaks down the process of determining if you have been the victim of discrimination — and what to do about it.

“Most often there will be some other reason proffered for why the party was terminated, and then it’s up to the party to demonstrate that they have evidence that would overcome the proffered reason for the termination,” Bruner said.

Another way to prove you were fired unfairly is to disprove the reason the employer offers.

“If, for example, they said, ‘We’re terminating the individual because they have poor attendance,’ then the party would have to show that their attendance was not poor,” Bruner said.

You could also show that other people at your place of employment were given preferential treatment — like the guy in the next office who’s always tardy.

“If the company always came up with some reason to terminate someone (of a minority or with a disability), then that would seem to support the allegation,” Bruner said.

If you think you have enough evidence to prove discrimination, the next step is to contact an attorney or the EEOC.

Most lawyers will take discrimination cases on contingency fees, which means the lawyer isn’t paid unless the case is won and might even offer a free initial consultation to see if there is merit to the case. After speaking with a lawyer, you will need to file a complaint with the EEOC.

The first step is to fill out a questionnaire detailing the relationships among the parties involved and the existing evidence. If there’s no support for the claim, an EEOC investigator will dismiss the case. If there is support, the next step is an interview.

Here, the investigator tries “to determine how much additional evidence a party might have to support their claim,” Bruner said. “If the investigator determines that the party has enough information to believe that it’s likely that a violation occurred, then we would go ahead and conduct an additional investigation.”

The additional investigation is conducted by the EEOC and would include serving the charge to the company, gathering documents and interviewing employees.

Anti-discrimination laws also apply to those seeking employment, so you may contact a lawyer or file a charge with the EEOC if you think you were denied a job because of discrimination.

The EEOC won’t accept charges after 180 days unless a state anti-discrimination agency is already involved. Missouri does have such an agency, the Missouri Commission on Human Rights. The commission’s involvement extends the deadline with the St. Louis or Kansas City offices to 300 days.

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