How to Deal

Discrimination at Work

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By Lily Garcia
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, November 13, 2008; 12:00 AM

Help! I took a new job a short time ago and on my first day of work my new boss essentially told me that he wanted me to build a case to fire one of my employees because he is a black man. He made it clear that this was a directive from him but backed by the head of the organization. Needless to say I was completely appalled and immediately updated my resume and have hit the job search trail, but how do I handle it until I find someplace else to go? I have been successful, so far, at keeping the malignant powers at bay, but I don't know who much longer I can keep it up. My employee did have a few performance issues that have been addressed and improved upon, but this has not been sufficient. What is most troubling about this whole incident is that it is blatantly obvious that my boss and his boss do not understand that they are discriminating against someone based on race and gender. And, the environment is such that it is crystal clear that if I say anything I will be fired -- immediately. I worry that if my employee files a lawsuit (and he should) I could be included in it. How do I find any attorney who specializes in this type of law? What do I need to do to protect myself until I can find another position? And, how do I keep my sanity until I find another job? Clerking at 7-11 is looking attractive at this point.

Your boss has essentially directed you to break the law. Cooperating with his plan is out of the question, but standing up for your employee could cost you your job. Although your situation is dire, you are not without options.

Foremost, keep very good documentation of everything that you see, say, and hear. If you ever find yourself needing to prove that you were fired for standing up against discrimination, which is illegal retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and a good number of other laws, good contemporaneous notes will help your case tremendously.

It takes enormous guts to stand up for what is right under such dubious circumstances. If you are sure that it will cost you your job, then I cannot blame you for hesitating to complain about the racism you are witnessing. Yet, that is exactly what you should do. Tell your boss that what he is planning to do is illegal and ask him to reconsider. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Web site, www.eeoc.gov, contains a number of compliance guides for business owners. If you were to print out the relevant compliance guides for your boss, perhaps he would be more receptive to your cautionary message than if you simply tell him that he is wrong. You have every right to express indignation at your boss's outrageous conduct. Yet, you have a better chance of preventing the worst if you try instead to seem as helpful and informative as possible.

If your boss will not listen, speak to the head of the organization. Your boss has assured you that this person is complicit in his plans to illegally fire your employee, but do you know for sure that this is the truth?

If you are not comfortable confronting the issue of racism directly, then at least stand up for the competency of your employee as a member of your team. Throw yourself in front of the train if you must. Do everything in your power to save your employee's job.

If it starts to seem like you will be unable to dissuade your boss from his plans, you should also consider tipping off the employee who has been targeted for discrimination. This is risky because it could backfire and lead to retaliation against you. However, it is the morally correct thing to do. It will help this employee to know what might be coming because then he, like you, will keep good documentation about what is happening, in case he does become victimized.

Although you could not be held personally liable for race discrimination under Title VII, you should be aware that you could be held liable for damages for discrimination under the laws of several states, including New York, New Jersey and California. So your obligation to act might be legal as well as moral.

If, despite your efforts, your boss nevertheless succeeds in his plans to create a pretext to oust your employee, you should report the matter immediately to the EEOC and seek guidance from an employment attorney.

Join Lily Garcia on Tuesday, Nov. 25, at 11 a.m. ET for How to Deal Live.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail HRadvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.


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