A reputation as a troublemaker – even if undeserved – probably won’t win you a lot of fans in the workplace. Plenty of laws exist to protect you if you've been discriminated against, but they can't control human nature. Whether a potential employer will admit it or not, a discrimination lawsuit in your past might affect his willingness to hire you, but you could have a hard time proving that's why you didn't get the job.
Under federal law, discrimination claims are limited to certain groups or classes. These include issues based on an employee's race or color, disability, gender or sex, national origin, religion, or age. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission acts as the federal watchdog over discriminatory workplace actions, but its rules only cover certain employers.
Depending on the nature of discrimination, some employers are beyond the reach of the EEOC. If the issue is your age, a private company must have 20 or more employees. Otherwise, it must usually have 15 or more employees, and the employees must have worked for the company for a minimum of 20 weeks. If your employer doesn't meet these requirements, speak with an attorney to find out if local or state laws will cover you.
If your company is covered by EEOC rules, you're obligated to first file a complaint with the EEOC before filing a lawsuit on your own. The EEOC will interview you – and probably the employer as well, so he'll know you've leveled a complaint against him. Under federal law, the EEOC has 180 days to conduct an investigation and decide if it wants to file a lawsuit on your behalf. It will probably decline – not because you don't have a legitimate complaint, but because of budget constraints and the sheer magnitude of the complaints received. The EEOC takes on less than 1 percent of cases submitted. If the Commission declines to take your case, it will give you a "Notice of Right to Sue" so you can proceed on your own with a private attorney.
Whether the EEOC takes your case or you use your own lawyer, no employer is allowed to retaliate against you for doing so. The law specifically states that your current employer can't fire, harass, or punish you. Future employers can't deny you a job because you initiated a discrimination lawsuit or complaint against another company. Unfortunately, an employer can – and often will – fire you because of alleged bad job performance, and you'd be left with the burden of proof to establish otherwise. A prospective employer can find some other reason why you're not right for the job. Employers don't want trouble. They don't need the headache of an EEOC investigation or a lawsuit. If you filed such a complaint once – even if it was absolutely warranted – they might worry that you would do it again. They could perceive you as being overly touchy on certain issues that could make for an uncomfortable workplace.
Discrimination is obviously a serious issue, and you're well within your rights to tell a prospective employer that your last employer discriminated against you. You might want to keep the information to yourself, however, unless you're asked. Most employers won't randomly check your name against EEOC records or court records to find out if you've ever filed such a complaint. If you're asked why you left your last job, you can simply say that your employer or co-workers made you feel uncomfortable. You can refrain from details unless you're pressed – the details are best left for a judge or jury anyway, not someone who's thinking about hiring you. If a future employer is insistent on knowing exactly why you felt mistreated and what you did about it, you might not want to work for him anyway. You'd have to ask yourself why he's so concerned with the details.
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Filing a Lawsuit
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Retaliation -- FAQs
- U.S. News & World Report: Why You Never Badmouth Your Boss at a Job Interview
- Nolo: Filing an EEOC Charge of Discrimination
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Coverage of Business/Private Employers
- Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images
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