3d people - human character under an umbrellaNews of a shocking allegation turned lawsuit against OWN, megastar Oprah Winfrey’s television network, broke earlier this month. The story goes:

Carolyn Hommel, former senior director at OWN, filed a lawsuit claiming she was laid off from the  network  months after taking medical leave due to a pregnancy. While on medical leave, Hommel said the network hired a temporary worker who took over her duties. Yet, after returning, Hommel claimed the worker continued taking on more of her previous responsibilities,  including leading weekly scheduling and research meetings. She said that in the following months, she continued to be “excluded from meetings, emails, and information on the status of projects.” Hommel said she was on track for a Vice President of Scheduling position. After allegedly not receiving an interview, Hommel later learned the temporary worker was hired in the VP position. She was fired in March 2012, just one month after giving birth.

Discrimination happens every day in the workplace. Dr. Cassi Fields of The Limited Exposure Theory Corporation sat down with Recruiter.com for a two-part interview on the different types of discrimination, how both employees and employers should handle this practice and what workers can take away from the Hommel case. Check out her expertise and insight in part one below:

Dr. Cassi Fields

Dr. Cassi Fields

1. How common is the type of discrimination Hommel experienced in today’s workplace?  

I believe workplace discrimination is very common, particularly against certain types of people who are protected under the civil rights laws (e.g., people from minority races, females, religious people, the young and the elderly, those who are disabled). Employers are sometimes uneducated in the civil rights laws that protect employees and those that apply to their organization. They are frequently unaware how certain acts, even seemingly innocuous acts, toward employees are discriminatory under the law.

Proving intentional discrimination, which is Hommel’s case, is very difficult.  This type of workplace discrimination is referred to as disparate treatment. I believe there are many cases of disparate treatment that happen on a daily basis throughout this country, but the cost to purse a claim of discrimination and the burden of proof is so great that plaintiffs rarely pursue this type of claim.

I know of many females in male-dominated workplaces that are harassed. I know of many minority employees who are kept out of specific assignments. I have witnessed organizations pursue policies that exclude African Americans or Hispanics. I have witnessed people pursue affirmative action to the point at which they discriminate against Caucasians.

2. How many mothers (or expectant mothers) has this happened to? 

I do not know the exact number, but it is likely fairly common. In this case, the plaintiff (Hommel) is claiming that her supervisors did not state they were terminating her due to her pregnancy per se.  This is often the case with discrimination. The excuse is called a “pretext” for discrimination and it usually appears acceptable at first glance. That is why victims so rarely pursue it. They have quite a battle to prove their case to lay people and the court.

I know of a recent case where the head of a police department intentionally placed women in administrative positions because he “feared” for their safety in street operations. Well, in that case, women will never be promoted to the top tier of the department because you must have operational experience to advance.  The pretext for placing women in administrative positions is that women are better writers, better organized, and better presenters. The real reason is to keep them from getting to the top in a “dangerous” job.

3. What are the most common forms of workplace discrimination? 

There are two general types of discrimination – intentional discrimination, called disparate treatment. This type of discrimination is usually against one person and is based upon a personal characteristic such as gender, race, religion, national origin, disability, etc.  This type of discrimination is usually subtle and those who discriminate often do it without others knowing.  Examples of this are setting up intentional roadblocks that prevent a woman or minority from advancing in his/her career, paying men a higher salary than women for the same work/job, selecting only white males for hire, placing only women in secretarial positions, and so on.

The other type of discrimination is against a group of people and is called disparate impact. This occurs when an employment selection, assessment, evaluation or promotion results in statistically different outcomes for a minority group compared to the majority group. For example, there have been many disparate impact claims where a group of people (e.g., African Americans or women) have been disproportionately selected out of a job, an assignment, a pay raise, a promotion or similar.  When this occurs, the group may sue the employer.  The employer has the opportunity to defend the employment process that caused the disparate impact by demonstrating it is valid or it is job-related.

4. How can a worker ensure his/her complaints are adequately addressed on the job? What steps can workers take? 

Workers often find it very difficult to articulate their concerns. It is often embarrassing, or the victim feels they will be perceived as “weak” if they cannot handle the person or people discriminating against them.  They also fear retaliation.

Generally, policies should exist in an organization that prevent discrimination from occurring. In the event there is a complaint of discrimination, there should be policy in place to direct the employee where to go (e.g., human resource department, EEO counselor, direct supervisor, etc.). If an employee is struggling to be heard within an organization, then I would suggest consulting with an employment discrimination attorney. They often offer a free consultation. They will frequently evaluate whether there is a pattern in the organization at issue, or if this is a case of disparate treatment.  They are the most likely to get you to the right attorney or to the right person.

Stay tuned for Dr. Fields’ advice on how employers should handle discrimination accusations in part two of this article.

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