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“Glass ceiling” Discrimination Defined

Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase “glass ceiling” used around the office and in the media, and wondered what exactly it meant in a legal context.  The answer is that a glass ceiling generally refers to an unfair, artificial barrier that prevents certain employees (women; people of color; LGBT) from fairly competing for upper management jobs in companies.  In practice, it keeps qualified employees from reaching their full potential and, depending on applicable law, illegally blocks them from occupying the best-paid and most powerful positions.  The glass ceiling can be caused by, among other things:

  • entrenched attitudes/stereotypes about what type(s) of people should get the “top” jobs at the company;
  • subjective/hard to define qualifications for promotions that introduce conscious or unconscious biases into decision-making; and/or
  • a lack of networking and mentoring opportunities for women, people of color, and LGTB individuals.

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as well as other federal and state laws, make it illegal for an employer to use promotion practices that create a glass ceiling.

Three Steps to Combat Glass Ceiling Discrimination

If you believe your company** denied you a promotion to a high-level position because of, for example, your gender, race/national origin, or sexual orientation, what can you do?  If you want to preserve your ability to challenge this glass ceiling in court, you should consider the following options:

  • File a written complaint and follow your company’s policy for submitting internal complaints;
  • You may also want to file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. Their website has helpful information on how to file the complaint and, although you cannot file the complaint online, you can file in person, by telephone, or by mail.  Depending on where you live, your complaint must be filed within 180 or 300 days of the discriminatory act.  If you have any questions about whether the EEOC is the right place to file, use their online assessment center, which will help you decide if the EEOC is the correct agency,
  • Talk about your legal options with an experienced employment law attorney. Given time bars that apply to discrimination claims, it is vital to get the right advice as early as possible in your case.

** If you are a federal government employee or a state or local (city, county) government employee, different complaint filing procedures may apply.  The EEOC’s website has a handy online assessment tool that provides information on how to file a complaint.

What remedies are available if I win my glass ceiling case?

If you win your case at trial or settle with the company beforehand, several types of remedies may be available.  For example:

  • Back pay – the difference between what you should have been paid if promoted and what the company actually paid you;
  • Compensatory damages – damages to address emotional distress, reputational harm, etc. that you suffered as a result of the company’s refusal to promote you;
  • Punitive damages – damages to punish the company if it acted with malice or reckless indifference;
  • Attorney’s fees and litigation expenses; and/or
  • Make-whole relief – placing you into the higher level position you were unlawfully denied.

Importantly, different federal, state and local laws may apply to your case and may allow different types and amounts of damages (Title VII, for example, has a cap on the amount of compensatory and punitive damages you can recover).

© 2017 Zuckerman Law

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About this Author

Eric Bachman, Discrimination Attorney, Zuckerman Law Firm
Of Counsel

Eric Bachman is Chair of the Discrimination and Retaliation practices at Zuckerman Law and has served in senior positions at the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) and the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division.  Bachman’s wins include a $100 million settlement in a disparate impact Title VII class action, a record-setting Whistleblower Protection Act settlement at OSC, and a $16 million class action settlement against a major grocery chain.  Bachman holds extensive litigation experience, including trials in federal and state courts, and has also set important...

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