When Employers Marginalize Workers and Break the Law

There are many reasons a disenchanted worker will walk into an employment attorney’s office for a consultation. They include religious discrimination, sexual harassment, wage theft, among others.

One common scenario we attorneys see are employees who have become marginalized in the workplace. People don’t come to us because the law was broken. They generally don’t know the law. They come to our office because they were treated like garbage. Marginalization can occur in a number of different forms and include physical isolation from coworkers, lack of recognition for an employee’s achievements, bullying, or a basic lack of respect. And while an employee can be marginalized for many different reasons, not all of them are unlawful.

In its most benign form, employee marginalization can be the result of poor management. As discussed in this Industry Week article, sometimes a manager mistakes a quiet employee for an employee lacking initiative. As a result, the employee isn’t engaged by management, or encouraged to advance within the company. While this type of treatment may be unfair, even wrong, it isn’t necessarily unlawful.

This article was written to discuss the plight of marginalized employees, as well as the legal line an employer walks when marginalizing a worker. If you believe that your employer has violated state or federal law in marginalizing you, contact our office to see how we can help.

Marginalized Worker Employment Law | Branigan Robertson

What is a Marginalized Employee?

Let’s look a hypothetical situation involving marginalization for purposes of illustration:

Picture a customer service representative named Bob, who works at a big box retailer. A friendly person, Bob’s laid-back approach to sales is appreciated by customers. While his individual sales numbers aren’t stellar, the department he works in has experienced a 15 percent boost in sales since his hiring. However, Bob’s supervisor frequently reminds him that the company doesn’t reward employees for ‘assists,’ and frequently demeans him in front of the other sales staff. One of the other sales reps, who’s numbers are slightly better than Bob’s, often gets overwhelming praise in front of staff for his performance.

When Bob complains to a store manager, his supervisor says he’s only trying to “toughen Bob up,” in order to make him better at his job. Unsatisfied with the company’s lack of response to his situation, Bob leaves the big box store for another job.

OK, so Bob has been marginalized, but did the employer break the law? Keep reading to find out.

The Effects of Marginalization on Morale

A person whose work is valued less by an employer while coworkers are praised and encouraged might experience a wide range of emotions, including discouragement, depression or hopelessness. In short, it’s not a good work situation.

The question that one often asks in this situation, is whether or not an employer who marginalizes a worker has violated the law. In Bob’s case, the answer is no. No laws were broken. Not all cases of employee marginalization are unlawful. It may be cruel, bad business, or just plain wrong, but an employee who’s experienced workplace marginalization may not have a strong case against the employer.

But your situation may be different. And this is what you need to pay close attention too. Keep reading to learn a little about what laws were designed to protect marginalized employees.

What the Law Says About Marginalized Workers

Both state and federal laws exist that are designed to protect workers. Even though California is an at-will employment state, which means an employer is usually free to terminate a worker for any reason, the law prohibits termination, discrimination, or marginalization in certain cases.

For instance, the Fair Employment and Housing Act §12940(a), which closely mirrors federal law, states that it is unlawful employment practice:

“For an employer, because of the race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, sexual orientation, or military and veteran status of any person, to refuse to hire or employ the person, or to refuse to select the person for a training program leading to employment, or to bar or discharge the person for employment or from a training program leading to employment, or to discriminate against the person in compensation or in terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.”

So, if we look at the example of our friend Bob from the previous section, an employment attorney would have to consider several factors to determine whether or not he had a strong case. For instance: was Bob’s employer marginalizing him because of his skin color, religious beliefs or sexual orientation? Any of these would be discrimination and we have detailed pages and videos on each.

Was Bob the openly gay employee in his department? Did straight employees receive advancements or bonuses while performing the same duties as Bob? Did Bob’s supervisor make slurs or use sexually inappropriate language when referring to Bob (hostile work environment)?

These and other issues would need to be explored in order to determine whether or not Bob’s marginalization was unlawful.

Whistleblowers Are Also Protected

A whistleblower is an employee who notifies the authorities of workplace violations of law. Under California Labor Code, it is unlawful for a company to retaliate against an employee who has called attention to such violations. Not surprisingly, a common company response to a whistleblower is to isolate and marginalize that employee, perhaps in the hope that the employee will simply quit.

Make no mistake, if a company uses marginalizing tactics to retaliate against an employee because he or she blew the whistle on illegal company activity, the retaliation is unlawful.

Do You Feel You Were Treated Unlawfully by an Employer?

It’s a sad fact of employment. Some companies tend to treat their workers abysmally. This can be for several reasons: misguided attempts to spur production, poor management skills, a lack of regard for workers, or something more nefarious (and unlawful) such as personal prejudice against protected classes.

If you’ve experienced marginalization at work, it could be well worth your time and effort to discuss the specifics of your case with an employment lawyer. While it’s true that many cases of employee marginalization are not unlawful, a good lawyer will be able to look at the facts of the case and decide whether or not legal action should be pursued.

Contacting a Lawyer

A person who successfully pursues a claim against an employer engaged in employee marginalization can potentially benefit financially. In California, marginalized employees may be entitled to:

  • Lost wages
  • Back pay
  • Pain and suffering
  • Punitive damages

Employment attorneys representing workers often take cases on a contingency basis. This means the client doesn’t pay up front fees, but rather the attorney is paid with proceeds from the judgment or settlement. If you have questions about any of the topics covered on this page, or other employment law issues, contact our employee rights office to schedule a consultation.

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