Can my boss get away with humiliating me and calling me derogatory names at work?

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Under "employment at will," an employer may harass, disparage, insult, etc. an employee to his or her heart's content, with one exception: your boss cannot harass or discriminate against an employee because of certain specifically protected reasons such as race, sex, religion, national origin, disability, or age over 40. If harassment is not based on one of those specifically protected categories, it is legal.

Nobody likes being called derogatory names. And no one enjoys working in a hostile work environment. Unfortunately, with very few exceptions (discussed below), your boss can harass you or call you names, and your workplace can be hostile, and your only choice is whether to put up with it or quit and seek employment better for your mental health and quality of life.

The culprit is the doctrine of “employment at will,” which is the law of the land in the United States. Employment at will has many ramifications, but for this discussion, the main one is this: no one has a right to a job; anyone can leave a job whenever he or she wants. So, if you don’t like your job, your recourse is leave it.

This doctrine ignores practical everyday realities—it’s not so easy to leave a job just because it’s demeaning or unpleasant when you have rent or a mortgage, car payments or medical bills, or are providing for a family—but it’s still the controlling paradigm in employment law. Since you don’t have a right to a job, your employer doesn’t have to be nice, respectful, courteous, or professional. If you don’t like your boss or your job, go elsewhere.

Therefore, as a general rule, your employer can call you derogatory names or foster a hostile work environment. Your job can legally be the worst experience of your life. But like all general rules, there are exceptions:

  1. If you have a written employment contract (including a union agreement), it may give you rights to certain treatment or to file official grievances. You have whatever rights the contract, by its plain language, gives you.
  2. Certain forms of discrimination at work—which includes being treated badly or harassed—are banned. Under federal law (that is, it applies in every state and territory), an employer cannot harass you because of your color, race, religion, sex, national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or “genetic information.”

Number 2 above means that you may have an illegal employment discrimination complaint which you can bring to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) if you are being harassed or called names because, for example, you are from Mexico, or are Muslim, or are Asian, or are a woman, etc. Derogatory race or national origin names, ethnic or religious slurs, misogynistic treatment, and the like would all be good evidence of illegal harassment or discrimination, and if you are experiencing this, you should contact the EEOC.

But many things are not protected. If your employer doesn’t like the region or state of the U.S. you come from, doesn’t like your taste in music or your politics, or simply doesn’t like you—or is a bully to everyone, regardless of their group identity or characteristics—that is legal. Only the specifically protected categories discussed above are protected under federal law.

Certain states may add additional protected categories or characteristics, such as family or marital status (e.g., no discrimination against single moms)—check the laws of your state for any additional protections you may have.

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