Human resources is usually the first place people go when they're harassed or discriminated against at work, but HR reps work for the company, not the employees, and don't always have your best interests at heart. Here's what you need to know if you've been harassed or discriminated against at work.
Who should I report my problem to?
If you work at a national chain or local branch of a big company, it can be hard to even figure out who to report discrimination to (or that person may work different shifts than you, making it tough to talk to them). Check your employee handbook, ask co-workers, or surf your company's site for a hotline for employees.
What should HR do about my complaints?
Manage your expectations of HR from the start.
HR should start an investigation into your claims, in which a rep interviews you, the person or people you're accusing of discrimination, and any potential witnesses, and updates you on their conclusion. In most cases, "going to HR is a box you need to check in order to give your employer the chance to do things properly before you can pursue other options," (like a lawsuit) says Deborah Marcuse, an employment attorney at Feinstein Doyle Payne & Kravec in Pittsburgh.
Just manage expectations. "Don't go in expecting an advocate," Marcuse says. At best, anticipate HR will hear you out as a neutral party; at worst, know they can be hostile to your report and try to side with the company over you. Know that HR does not have to keep your conversation confidential and it could get back to your manager or even be used against you. (Retaliating — firing, demoting or otherwise punishing employees for reporting discrimination — is illegal, but it does happen.)
How should I prepare for a meeting with HR?
Document, document, document.
Come prepared to your meeting with HR with all the proof you have that you're being unfairly singled out at work. "This can be a way of taking some control back in a situation where you feel very out of control, so that every new injury is now evidence of the company's wrongdoing," notes Marcuse. If the offensive behavior was happening digitally, save voicemails, and emails, screenshot Slack chats and/or texts and print them all out (somewhere besides the office) and bring them to the meeting. If the harassment was in person, take notes or write up memos of disturbing meetings, phone calls or conversations immediately after they happen so the details are fresh in your mind. Document your meetings with HR, too — who you met with and when, and what you spoke about, should you ever need them in a legal case in the future. "Too often we see people where HR might try and deny that they ever spoke to them," says Elizabeth Gedmark, an attorney at A Better Balance: The Work & Family Legal Center. Just note that in multiple states, recording a conversation without the other person's consent is a felony, so don't record unless you've checked that it's legal. The more evidence you have, the harder you'll make it for HR to dismiss you.
How do I know if the behavior I'm dealing with at work is illegal?
Unlike sexual assault, sexual harassment isn't a criminal offense.
Sexual harassment isn't something you'd report to the police or something someone could serve jail time for, but it is against the law — namely the federal Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination based on sex, so victims can file civil lawsuits against their harassers and sue for monetary damages. Discrimination laws vary dramatically state to state — for example, some, like California, have new equal pay laws, while Southern states have among the weakest workplace discrimination protections for women. There are different statutes of limitations, too — New Yorkers have up to 3 years to file a discrimination lawsuit, but, in Pennsylvania, employees have 180 days from the time discrimination took place. You can look up your state laws here or get a special breakdown on pregnancy or parental discrimination here. Knowing your stuff means you can "print out a copy of the statute, march right into HR and say, 'here's this law that protects me,'" Gedmark says.
Note: If you work at a company with 15 or fewer employees, your company is exempt from federal discrimination laws — so it's extra important to know your rights in your state. But employees at larger companies in any state can make a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that oversees discrimination at work. The EEOC requires you to file a complaint within 180 days of when the discrimination took place.
Should I quit my job — or should I stay?
If you're considering eventually suing your company, "it can be better to be fired than to quit," says Gedmark. Later on, should your case turn into a lawsuit, the company could defend itself by saying it didn't mistreat or even fire you — you left on your own. From the human point of view, though, if staying at your job is making you so miserable that you can't take it anymore, don't just stay for the sake of a hypothetical lawsuit. Especially when there are no guarantees that you'd win. "You have to think about your own mental health and what you can deal with," says Gedmark.
I want to quit, but I can't afford to lose my job.
If the person harassing or discriminating against you is your manager or a co-worker, try asking for a transfer to another department or location.
How do I negotiate a payout with my company?
This isn't something you should ever do on your own.
Get a lawyer's help — or you risk making serious mistakes that could result in signing unreasonable agreements or walking away with less money than you should. Your company would be represented through their attorneys, and so should you. Read more about how settlements are negotiated here.
What if I can't afford a lawyer?
Turn to your federal, state and local agencies — though many are understaffed and overworked, it's their job to help you. At the federal level, the EEOC is your go-to; also Google the human rights commissions in your state. Trust .gov sites as opposed to others that might not be legit.