Employment At Will? Not Necessarily.
Most people in the workforce in Pennsylvania have by now heard from their employer that they are employees at will. But what does that mean? Basically, an employee can be fired at any time for any reason, or for no reason at all. But that is not an absolute statement. For example, written contracts of employment may guarantee employment for a certain period of time, and if an employee does not give his/her employee grounds to terminate for cause, the employee must usually be paid for the duration of the contract. Additionally, both state and federal law provide protections to employees based upon their status in certain protected classes. There are also certain public policy exceptions to the at will employment doctrine.
So how does an employee know if he/she has been subjected to unlawful discrimination in regards to hiring, firing, demotion, or failure to hire or promote? It is unlawful under Pennsylvania and federal law for an employer to unfairly treat, or for an employer or co-employee to harass, an employee based upon the age (over 40), disability, national origin, race or color, genetic information or gender (including pregnancy) of an applicant or an employee. It is also unlawful for an employer to retaliate against an employee who makes a good faith complaint about such discriminatory conduct, or to deny an employee a reasonable accommodation he/she requires because of religious beliefs or a disability. Additionally, men and women in the same workplace must be given equal pay for equal work.
The burden is on the employee in the first instance to provide evidence of such discrimination, and the burden then shifts to the employer to prove that there was a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. If the employer meets that burden, the employee, to be successful, must then prove that the reason put forth by the employer is merely pretextual.
Not all workplace “harassment” is covered by state and federal law. Just because a boss is loud, critical or downright nasty does not provide a basis for a cause of action. Can an adverse action be taken against you because the new color of your hair, or your style of dress, or the mere sound of your voice is offensive to your boss? Unfortunately, yes. Such harassment, if that’s truly what it is, must arise out of the employee’s status in the protected class. A bad business practice or innate meanness does not necessarily mean the employer is violating any law.
If you believe that you are being subjected to unlawful discriminatory action in your workplace, follow the EEOC policy in your employer’s handbook, if there is one, and file a complaint with your boss, or your Human Resources Manager. If none, or if such complaints are unsuccessful, speak with an Employment Lawyer, or contact the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. You may find that the conduct does not arise to a level that gives you grounds to proceed, but you will never know unless you ask.