Defending Against Claims of Employment Discrimination: What Employers Need to Know
Qualified Federal Employment Discrimination Lawyers
Discrimination claims can lead to financial and reputational harm for employers; and, with the recent media coverage of several high-profile sexual harassment allegations, employers in all industries need to be prepared to take appropriate action at the first sign of a potential problem. While numerous state and federal laws tat provide important protections for employees, employers will often have a variety of defenses in discrimination and sexual harassment cases as well, and mitigating any potential liability requires a detailed understanding of the factual circumstances as well as the nuanced legal principles that apply.
Proactive Measures for Preventing and Responding to Employees’ Allegations of Discrimination and Harassment
As with most legal matters, the best way to defend against allegations of discrimination and harassment is with a proactive approach. Companies of all sizes should ensure that employees at all levels understand the legal restrictions on their conduct at work, and they should maintain adequate documentation of both company policies and any possible issues that come to light. Not only will can this actually help prevent discrimination and harassment in the workplace, but it can also supply a critical defense strategy when employees assert that the company failed to take appropriate measures to prevent discriminatory or harassing conduct.
Proactive measures that can be critical to both preventing and defending against allegations of employment discrimination and harassment include:
- Employee Training – Managers and individual contributors should receive initial and ongoing training on the prohibitions that exist under state and federal law. Employers should have means to track employees’ completion of mandatory training programs, and new training programs should be updated as laws and company policies change over time.
- Internal Policies and Procedures – Companies should design, implement, and constantly review internal policies and procedures that are custom-tailored to their unique business environments. These policies and procedures should be made available to all employees (and their distribution should be documented), and executives and managers should have a clear understanding of appropriate enforcement and response protocols.
- Personnel Files and Incident Records – Personnel files and incident reports will often serve as critical evidence in discrimination and harassment litigation. A history of discipline may provide justification for an alleged wrongful termination, while evidence that the company took appropriate steps to respond to the employee’s previous allegations can provide insulation from company-level liability.
Key Defense Strategies in Discrimination and Harassment Litigation
In litigation before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as well as in state and federal court, the laws that protect employees also help ensure that employers are not unfairly penalized for legitimate employment practices or for employees’ unmeritorious claims. Employers facing discrimination and harassment lawsuits may have several defenses available, and developing a comprehensive defense strategy is critical to avoiding the legal and practical ramifications of an unfavorable administrative decision or verdict at trial.
Some of the strongest defenses to employees’ allegations of workplace discrimination and harassment include the following:
1. Bona Fide Occupational Qualification
Employers are entitled to make hiring, termination, promotion, and other employment-related decisions based upon “bona fide occupational qualifications.” Where a bona fine occupational qualification exists (i.e. an age or training requirement for a highly-skilled employment position), an employer is lawfully permitted to take an employee’s or job candidate’s personal traits into consideration where such consideration might otherwise constitute improper reliance on the employee’s or candidate’s membership in a protected class.
2. Job Performance
If an employee’s job performance justifies an employment-related decision (such as termination of employment), the employee cannot assert his or her membership in a protected class as grounds to prevent his or her employer from taking performance-related action. This is one example of a defense where thorough documentation can be crucial to overcoming a disgruntled employee’s unsubstantiated claims.
3. Seniority System
Under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), employers are permitted to implement seniority systems that provide employment advantages based upon employees’ length of service. Seniority systems should be carefully documented, and they should be structured to ensure that employees are not treated differently based solely upon their age (as opposed to tenure with the company).
4. Failure to Notify
In order to pursue a discrimination or harassment claim before the EEOC, employees generally must first provide notice to their employers. If your company was not provided with adequate notice and a reasonable opportunity to remedy an alleged violation, this may provide grounds to have the employee’s claim denied.
5. Failure to Meet Statutory Requirements
Along with the EEOC claim notice requirement, employees’ discrimination and harassment claims are subject to a variety of other statutory requirements as well. If your company is within its rights to challenge an employee’s discrimination or harassment claim based upon a statutory deficiency or other technicality, this may provide an efficient and effective means to achieve a favorable resolution.
6. Failure to State a Claim
Along with the specific defenses discussed above, employers will frequently be able to overcome employees’ discrimination and harassment claims by demonstrating that there is not sufficient legal or factual basis for the employee’s allegations. Whether an employee’s allegations simply do not arise to the level of illegal discrimination or harassment, or an employee fails to present sufficient evidence to support a statutory claim, if an employee cannot prove his or her case, his or her employer is entitled to have the case resolved in its favor.
7. Violation of an Employment Agreement
Although an employee’s violation of the terms of employment cannot justify discrimination or harassment (and employers must be extremely careful to avoid any appearances of retaliation), violation of an employment agreement may provide legal grounds for an employee’s termination. Raising other violations (such as theft from the company) may also provide leverage for negotiating a confidential settlement outside of formal EEOC or judicial procedures.
Contact the Trusted Employment Litigation Attorneys at Oberheiden, P.C.
If your company is facing allegations of discrimination or harassment, our employment litigation attorneys can take aggressive action to protect your company against unnecessary exposure. To get started with a confidential initial consultation, please call 888-680-1745 or inquire online today.