Workplace Discrimination

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Workplace Discrimination

You have a right to work free from discrimination. This includes being free from harassment, unfair treatment, and retaliation. This also includes the right to reasonable accommodations to allow you to do your job and accommodate your disability or religious beliefs. Each of these types of discrimination is explained in more detail in the sections below.

There are state and federal agencies in charge of enforcing employment discrimination laws. These agencies investigate complaints of discrimination. In some circumstances, they may bring a court case against an employer. The federal agency in charge of enforcing the federal employment discrimination laws is the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The state agency is the Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR). 

You can be discriminated against by employers, co-workers, managers, or others in your workplace environment. Workplace discrimination can include:

  • Unfair treatment
  • Harassment
  • Improper questions about your genetic or medical information
  • Denial of a reasonable workplace change that you need because of your religious beliefs or disability
  • Retaliation because you tried to enforce your rights

Unfair Treatment

Protection from unfair treatment applies to bigger job decisions, like hiring, firing, promotions, training, wages, and benefits. Your employer cannot make substantial job decisions because of your:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • National origin 
  • Sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, and gender identity)
  • Disability
  • Age
  • Genetic information (including family medical history)


Workplace harassment is a type of discrimination that creates a work environment that is intimidating, hostile, or offensive where the harassment is based on an employee’s race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or genetic information. Any employee who is impacted by the offensive conduct can experience harassment, not just the employee who was harassed.

The harasser can be the employee's supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, like a client or customer.

Workplace harassment can involve:

  • Offensive jokes
  • Slurs or epithets
  • Physical assaults or threats
  • Ridicule or insults
  • Display of offensive objects or pictures

Sexual harassment may include:

  • Sexual advances
  • Requests for sexual favors
  • Other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature
  • Offensive remarks about a person's sex

Improper Questions about Your Medical History

When you apply for a job, an employer may not ask if you have a disability, require that you take a medical exam, or make you answer medical questions before making a job offer. This includes questions about genetic tests, diseases, disorders, or conditions you or your family members may have.

Once you are hired and start working, an employer can usually only ask medical questions or require a medical exam if you request an accommodation or if your employer has a reason to believe you cannot safely perform a job because of a medical condition.

Your employer must keep your medical records and information confidential and in a separate medical file.

Reasonable Accommodations

A job accommodation is a change to a job or work environment that makes it possible for a person with a disability or religious belief to perform their job duties.

Disability Accommodations

Accommodations for people with disabilities may include specialized equipment, modifications to the work environment, or changes to work schedules or responsibilities.

Accommodations can vary widely and should be tailored to the needs of the person with a disability. For example, a job applicant who is deaf may need a sign language interpreter during the job interview; an employee who is blind or who has low vision may need someone to read information posted on a bulletin board, and an employee with diabetes may need regularly scheduled breaks during the workday to check blood sugar and insulin levels.

If you need a disability accommodation, you must ask your employer for one. Your employer does not have to give you the specific accommodation you request as long as they provide an accommodation that is reasonable. Employers do not need to provide accommodations that are overly disruptive or impact the business’s ability to operate.

Religious Accommodations

Employers must make reasonable changes to the work environment that will allow an employee to practice their religion. Some common religious accommodations include flexible scheduling or leave for religious observances, voluntary shift substitutions or swaps, job reassignments, and modifications to workplace policies or practices. Religious accommodations can also include dress or grooming practices that an employee has for religious reasons, such as wearing a head covering, hairstyle, or facial hair.

An employer does not have to accommodate an employee's religious beliefs or practices if doing so would cause undue hardship to the employer. This could happen if the accommodation is expensive, unsafe, decreases workplace efficiency, infringes on the rights of other employees, or requires other employees to do more than their share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work.


Workplace retaliation happens when an employer takes a negative action against an employee because the employee engaged in a protected activity. Protected activities are rights that employees have under the law. Protected activities include:

  • Complaining or threatening to complain about discrimination against you or others
  • Talking to coworkers to gather information or evidence in support of a potential charge or complaint
  • Communicating with a supervisor or manager about employment discrimination
  • Filing or being a witness in an EEOC or MDCR charge, complaint, investigation, or lawsuit
  • Filing a complaint with your Human Resources Department
  • Participating and answering questions in an internal workplace investigation
  • Refusing to follow orders that would result in discrimination
  • Resisting sexual advances, or intervening to protect others
  • Requesting accommodations because of a disability or for a religious practice
  • Asking managers or co-workers about salary information to uncover potentially discriminatory wages.

Workplace retaliation can include:

  • Harassment or threats at work
  • Poor performance reviews, suspensions, and disciplinary action
  • Firings, demotions, or a failure to be promoted
  • Pay cuts or a loss of benefits
  • Transfers to a less desirable job or department

Is It Retaliation even if My Complaint Isn’t Upheld?

An employer is not allowed to retaliate against an employee who makes a charge or files a complaint no matter what the outcome of the investigation is. As long as the complaint is made in good faith, the law protects you even if the investigator sides with the employer.

Do I Have to Be the Person Who Filed the Complaint to Be Protected?

Even if you were not the person who filed the complaint, you may still be a victim of retaliation if you participated or assisted in the claim or investigation process. In some cases, employees may be asked to cooperate with investigations or serve as witnesses. Employers cannot punish employees for participating in the investigation process.

Enforcing Your Rights

There are federal and state laws that protect workers who have experienced discrimination. There are two main ways to enforce these legal rights: filing a complaint with a government agency, or filing a lawsuit in court. In some cases, you have to file a complaint with a government agency before you can file a lawsuit in court. In other cases, you can choose whether you want to file a complaint with a government agency or file a lawsuit in court.

If you are not sure about your next steps, you may want to talk to a lawyer. If you have low income, you may qualify for free legal services. Whether you have low income or not, you can use the Guide to Legal Help to find lawyers in your area.

The federal agency in charge of enforcing the federal employment discrimination laws is the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The state agency is the Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR). The EEOC and MDCR have a work-sharing agreement that allows a complaint filed with one organization to be shared with the other organization. You do not need to file with both agencies.

There are differences between filing a complaint with a government agency and filing a lawsuit in court. With a government agency, a person is assigned to investigate the complaint and determine what happened. Because there is an investigator, some people find the process to be less confrontational and stressful than filing a lawsuit and going to court.

If an investigator finds that there was discrimination, it cannot make your employer do or pay anything. Instead, the agency can usually try to help both sides reach a settlement agreement to resolve the case. Settlement agreements are usually enforceable in court.

In court, the case is in front of a judge who does not investigate. Instead, it is the responsibility of both the employee and the employer or their lawyers to get and present evidence to support their side. In a court case, a judge or jury can decide that the employer has to pay money or take other action. That decision can be enforced in court.

Whether you file a complaint with a government agency or file a lawsuit in court, be sure you have access to documents that could show how you were treated. If there is ongoing discrimination, it may be helpful to keep a log of who was present, what was said, and when it occurred. Any information you can gather may be helpful when you need to prove that a discriminatory event occurred.

Both processes take time. Investigations and lawsuits can take months and even years to resolve.

How Your Employee Handbook and Contract Can Affect Your Case

Read your employee handbook, contract, and workplace policies. Your employer can use these documents to shorten your deadline to file a lawsuit under state law. Your employer may also require that you go to arbitration and not allow you to file a lawsuit. If you are a member of a union, you may need to talk to your union representative before you take further steps.

You should read your employment materials carefully because they may tell you what steps you are required to take next.

Federal Laws and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

The EEOC enforces federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee. Go to the EEOC website for a summary of these laws.

Most employers with at least 15 employees must follow federal laws. In age discrimination cases, an employer must have at least 20 employees for federal laws to apply to them. Most labor unions and employment agencies are also covered by federal laws.

If you have questions about whether federal laws apply to your employer, you can contact the EEOC’s Detroit Field Office or an employment lawyer. If you have low income, you may qualify for free legal services. Whether you have low income or not, you can use the Guide to Legal Help to find lawyers in your area.

Filing a Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC

If you have been discriminated against at work and federal laws apply to your employer, you can file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC.  A charge is a signed statement you write that explains your allegation. It asks the EEOC to investigate and take action. Most federal laws require you to file a charge before you can file a discrimination lawsuit in court. To learn more, read the Filing a Charge of Discrimination page on the EEOC website.

You can use the EEOC’s Public Portal to start the process of filing your charge. The portal will first ask you questions to make sure the EEOC is the right agency to handle your case. Contact the Detroit Field Office if you have questions or if you can’t access the portal.

After you answer the questions, you will need to schedule an intake interview with an EEOC staff member. You can schedule this interview using the portal. During the interview, an EEOC staff member will review all of the following with you:

  • The information you submitted about your case
  • Your rights and responsibilities under federal laws
  • The process the EEOC will follow after you file your charge, including the investigation

Once you file the charge, the EEOC will give you information about the next steps. The EEOC will notify your employer about the charge within 10 days after you file it. To learn more, read Formal Complaint & Investigation Process and What You Can Expect After a Charge is Filed on the EEOC website.

Filing Deadline

You need to file a charge with the EEOC within 300 days from the day the discrimination happened. This deadline applies to each incident of discrimination. For example, if you were

demoted and six months later you were fired, the filing deadline would apply to each separate incident. Using the example above, this means if you miss the deadline for the demotion, the EEOC can only investigate the firing. It is best to file your charge with the EEOC as soon as possible.

To learn more, read Time Limits For Filing A Charge on the EEOC website.

The Investigation

The EEOC will investigate whether it is reasonable to believe discrimination occurred. The EEOC will conduct an impartial investigation. This means it will not be an advocate for you or your employer. You and your employer will both need to provide information and evidence during this stage of the process.

Your employer may be asked to submit a written statement of position, which is their response to the charge. They may also be asked to provide the personnel files for you and other employees of interest. The EEOC could also ask to do a site visit and ask to interview employees as part of their investigation. On average, it takes the EEOC about 10 months to investigate a charge.

If the EEOC Finds Discrimination Occurred

If the EEOC finds there is reasonable cause to believe discrimination occurred, it will give you and your employer a Letter of Determination. This letter will state the EEOC’s findings and invite you and your employer to work with it to settle the issue. This process is called conciliation, and it involves mediation to help the parties come to an agreement. This process is voluntary.

If the EEOC can’t settle the charge, it will do one of two things. First, it can choose to file a lawsuit against the employer to protect your rights and the public’s interest. This doesn’t happen very often. Second, the EEOC can send you a Notice of Right to Sue. If you were required to file a complaint with the EEOC first, this now gives you the right to file a lawsuit in court. The notice gives you 90 days from the day you receive it to file a lawsuit.

If the EEOC Finds No Discrimination Occurred

If the EEOC finds there is not enough evidence to conclude discrimination happened, it will give you a notice called “Dismissal and Notice of Rights.” This notice will say you have 90 days from the day you receive the notice to file a lawsuit if you choose. Your employer will be given a copy of the notice too.

You can find samples of forms you may see in your case by going to Selected EEOC Forms on the EEOC website.

Where Can I Find an Update on My Charge?

If you want to check the status of your charge, you can visit the EEOC's Public Portal. The portal also allows you to upload documents supporting your charge and respond to requests for documents and other information. If you have questions about how to log in to the portal, visit the EEOC’s website What You Can Expect After You File a Charge.

State Laws and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR)

The Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR) enforces state laws that make it illegal to discriminate against an employee or job applicant. Go to the MDCR website for a summary of these laws. You may be able to file a complaint if, for reasons of religion, race, color, national origin, genetic information, age, sex, marital status, height, weight, arrest record, or disability, you were:

  • Refused employment
  • Paid less money for equal work
  • Harassed or faced unequal treatment
  • Denied membership or expelled from a labor organization
  • Denied promotion
  • Denied representation in a grievance
  • Fired without just cause
  • Denied admission to a training program

Filing a Complaint with the MDCR

If you were discriminated against at work, you can file a complaint with the MDCR. You can fill out and submit your complaint on the Complaint Request page of the MDCR website. If the discrimination is something that MDCR is responsible for investigating, it will send you a formal complaint to sign. You will need to go to a notary public to sign the complaint. Return the notarized complaint to the MDCR.

Once the MDCR receives your notarized complaint, it will send a copy of the complaint to you. The MDCR will also send a copy to your employer or the organization you filed your complaint against.

Filing Deadline

You have 180 days from the day the discrimination happened to file a complaint with the MDCR.

The Investigation

The MDCR staff investigates complaints and decides whether discrimination occurred. During the investigation, the MDCR staff will be impartial. This means it will not be an advocate for you or your employer.  You and your employer will both need to provide information and evidence during this stage of the process. The investigation may also include a site visit, interviews with witnesses or other employees, and a review of documents.

Resolving the Complaint

The MDCR tries to resolve complaints at all stages of the investigation. If both you and your employer agree to a settlement, the MDCR will close the investigation. If no settlement is reached, the MDCR will complete the investigation and report on its findings.

Filing a Lawsuit

Filing a lawsuit is different from filing a charge or complaint with the EEOC or MDCR. When you file a charge or complaint with the EEOC or the MDCR, this begins an administrative process. An investigator will be assigned to the case and will try to figure out what happened in your workplace. You do not go in front of a judge or jury. Sometimes you may also talk with a mediator, who will try to help you and your employer come to an agreement to settle the matter.

When you file a lawsuit, you will go to court and speak with a judge. In some cases, you cannot file a lawsuit until you have filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC and received your Notice of Right to Sue letter. In these cases, if you do not file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC first, you will not be able to file your lawsuit in court.

When you file a lawsuit, you will have to decide if you want to file your case using state laws, federal laws, or both, and whether you want to file in state or federal court. Choosing which laws to sue under and what court to file in can be complicated. If you want to speak with a lawyer, read the “Finding a Lawyer” section below.

Finding a Lawyer 

You might decide you want a lawyer to help you with your case. You can use the Guide to Legal Help to find lawyers in your area. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website also has information about finding an employment lawyer. To find out more about how to hire a lawyer, read Hiring a Lawyer.

If you are not able to get free legal services but can’t afford high legal fees, consider hiring a lawyer for part of your case instead of the whole thing. This is called limited scope representation. To learn more, read Limited Scope Representation (LSR): A More Affordable Way to Hire a Lawyer