Can an employer single me out and treat me differently from other employees?

Unless you have a written employment contract or are a victim of illegal discrimination, there is no legal obligation to treat all employees the same. An employer may absolutely offer or give you less, or even take things (e.g. title, pay, benefits, etc.) away from you. Newly hired employees can be given better packages or compensation than more senior employees; employees with the same title can have different working and compensation arrangements; you can be held to different standards than coworkers.

There’s an old, trite, but true saying, “Life is not fair.” Unfortunately, the same is true for employment: employment is not fair, either, as least in the United States in the clear majority of cases.

There is no law requiring that all employees be treated fairly or alike, other than the laws prohibiting certain specific forms of discrimination (see below). There is also no law guarantying anyone the right to a job—whether to get a job in the first instance, or to retain a job you’ve been in for years. Employers have free rein to set or change the terms, conditions, responsibilities, authority, compensation, or benefits of jobs, at any time, for any reason, without employee consent or input. Your job (including how and what you are paid) is exactly what your employer says it is, and there is no law to the contrary. And there is not even any law requiring courteous or professional—or even non-abusive—treatment by employers: they can, to put it bluntly, bully, disrespect, or harass employees at will. In addition, not only are there no laws requiring the above, but “employment at will”—the legal principal that you have a job only so long as the employer wants to employ you—also means that employers are free to treat you any way they like, and your only recourse would be to seek other employment.

There are exceptions. The law prohibits certain specific forms of discrimination. Under federal law (which is enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC), an employer can’t treat employees differently due to their race, national origin, color, sex, age 40 or over, disability, or religion. Some states add additional protected categories. This does not mean, however, that an employee in one of these categories can’t be treated differently than employees not in that category. It only means that the reason for the differential treatment cannot be the protected category. For example, an employer cannot pay 20- or 30-something year olds more than it pays 50-year olds because it likes younger employees better or thinks older employees are “over the hill.” However, if a younger employee has education, training, or credentials the older employee lacks, or has been performing better (higher sales numbers or higher output, less customer complaints, better budget management, etc.), the younger employee could be rewarded on that non-age-related basis. Similarly, an African American employee could not be given a less desirable shift or posting than white employees because of his race—but he could be treated differently if he is not as experienced or senior as white employees. Only differential treatment based on the protected category is barred by law.

The second exception is if there is a contract (including a union or collective bargaining agreement) which mandates equality of treatment or guarantees certain things to an employee. If there is, then the employer is obligated to follow the terms of the contract. The employee will have whatever rights or protections the contract gives him or her—but only those rights or protections.

If an employee believes there is illegal discrimination, he or she should report it to the EEOC or to his/her state’s equal or civil rights agency. If the employee believes there is a contract violation, the terms of the contract can be enforced in court. But unless there is illegal discrimination or a breach of contract, an employee may be singled out for different treatment.