Who Do I Complain To About Discrimination If I'm HR?

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An AOL Jobs reader asks:

I am a minority female HR professional who has been working in the field for 18 years. I have faced race based discrimination, and sexual harassment continuously during my career. I'm often hired into a management role based on my degree, experience and my SHRM certifications, only to be hidden and given no real responsibilities. Over the years I have learned to identify quickly organizations that offer "Token" positions hoping to fill a quota. These orgs provide no training, support or valid work responsibilities in order to build a case of poor performance.

Unfortunately because I report to HR, following protocol on any harassment claim is nearly impossible. HR staff is notorious for creating the same hostile environments they are hired to protect. HR professionals rarely file complaints for fear of black listing tactics and back door references provided to other HR professionals.

As an employment lawyer have you seen any HR to HR complaints, and do you have any suggestions in regard to HR professionals protecting themselves against the crimes of their peers?

You'd be surprised how many times I have HR people come to me with employment law issues. I have to say, I love representing HR people because you know where the bodies are buried. Employers that don't treat HR professionals like gold are asking for trouble.

So, where does the HR representative go when they're the victim of illegal harassment? There are several steps I'd recommend taking:
  • Check the handbook: Employee handbooks are supposed to have alternate people listed for employees to report illegal harassment to because employers can't say you have to report harassment to the harasser himself. If the handbook lists an alternative, such as a company officer or a third party vendor that investigates discrimination issues, report it to them. I always suggest reporting any kind of illegal harassment in writing because, as you know working in HR, a verbal complaint will be characterized in a way that isn't protected from retaliation.
  • Look for the lawyer: If the company has an inside counsel or has outside counsel who handles HR issues, you might have to report the illegal harassment you are encountering to them, again, in writing. This is risky, because this person represents the company, not you (but then, so does HR). Don't confide anything to them that you don't want held against you later.
  • File with EEOC: The Supreme Court says you must follow the published harassment policy and report any discriminatory harassment internally first. If, however, there is no published policy or the only person to report to is the harasser, then your only choice may be to file a Charge of Discrimination with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Depending on your state, you have either 180 days or 300 days from the date of discrimination to file with EEOC. The good news is that you're legally protected against retaliation if you file with them.
  • Complain in a way that's protected: If you complain internally, don't forget to limit your complaint to issues where you're legally protected against retaliation. Bullying, general hostile environment and general harassment aren't illegal in any state. However, reporting harassment/hostile environment based on your race, age, sex, religion, national origin, color, pregnancy or other protected status is protected against retaliation. Similarly, reporting or objecting to illegal activity by the company, failing to pay wages or overtime, and certain other legal violations is legally protected against retaliation.

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When in doubt, it's best to contact an employment lawyer in your state about your rights. In the meantime, don't give them any excuses to fire you. Do your job, don't refuse a direct order, show up every day and on time, and don't let your work quality slip. Remember, they can fire you for a legitimate reason other than discrimination or retaliation, even after you report discriminatory harassment.

If you need legal advice, it's best to talk to an employment lawyer in your state, but if you have general legal issues you want me to discuss publicly here, whether about discrimination, working conditions, employment contracts, medical leave, or other employment law issues, you can ask me at AOL Jobs.

Please note: Anything you write to me may be featured in one of my columns. I won't be able to respond individually to questions.
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