By Rights... Answers to Your Human Rights Questions

Column 24

In this column:

  • A Hostile Environment for Pregnant Co-Worker?
  • Criminal Conviction Jeopardizes Job Search
  • Gender Slur Still Makes Co-Worker Uncomfortable

A Hostile Environment for Pregnant Co-worker?

I am contacting you on behalf of a co-worker who is pregnant and works as a receptionist. Karla is due in May, and our boss keeps mentioning in emails to other employees that because Karla is pregnant, they can't take vacation, and reminding us all that Karla is having her baby at a busy time, etc. Would this be considered harassment for being pregnant?

The Commissioner says:

If your employer is accommodating your co-worker's pregnancy by providing time off, but characterizing that accommodation to other employees in such a way that it creates a hostile environment for your pregnant co-worker, it is possible that the employer's actions would be considered discrimination under the Human Rights Act. If your co-worker believes that her employer is subjecting her to a hostile environment because of her pregnancy, we suggest she contact our intake unit at 651-296-5663 or 1-800-657-3704.

Criminal Conviction Jeopardizes Job Search

I recently left a well-paying job because of transportation problems, and now no one will hire me. I've filled out about 100 job applications, and every one of them asks, "Have you ever committed a crime?" I have one misdemeanor conviction for prostitution from six years ago; now, no one will take a chance on me. Can you tell me if there will ever be a law taking that question off of applications?

The Commissioner says:

Whether there will eventually be a law providing protection in employment for those with arrest or conviction records is up the state Legislature. A few other states, including Wisconsin, have enacted laws providing that employers cannot refuse to hire someone who has been arrested or convicted of a crime, without at least considering how recent and/or relevant that arrest or conviction is. Minnesota does not have such protection, though if an employer were to consider any previous arrest an absolute bar to employment, it is possible that such a policy would have an adverse impact within certain protected classes, such as race, and would therefore be a violation of the Human Rights Act. The Department of Human Rights recently produced a television program on disparities in our criminal justice system, which examined the consequences of employers' relying on arrest records in their hiring decisions.

Beginning January 2014, Minnesota law will no longer allow private employers to include questions about an applicant's criminal record on an initial job application. Instead, they will be required to wait until a job applicant has been selected for an interview or a conditional offer of employment has been extended before asking the applicant about their criminal record or conducting a criminal background check. This law is commonly known as "Ban the Box" and has applied to public employees in Minnesota since 2009.

Gender Slur Still Makes Co-worker Uncomfortable

I have been having problems with an employee at work for almost a year. One day in August, I thought I heard him, quietly, call me a "bitch". When I asked him to repeat what he said, he replied that I heard him. Later he denied that he had called me a derogatory name, and claimed he had said that "paybacks are a bitch". I went to our HR department, they did an investigation and it was decided that he never called me a bitch, but that the word bitch was used. Nothing further was done. I now have to work with this employee almost every day. This situation has affected not only my job performance, but it is affecting my home life as well. What are my rights?

The Commissioner Says:

You had good reason to complain. The word bitch is a gender-specific term of derogation; here, it was used by a male employee in your presence, even if not clearly directed toward you. When an employer knows or should know that this kind of behavior is occurring, the employer has a duty to promptly investigate and take appropriate action to stop the behavior. It appears that in this case, your employer acted responsibly and fulfilled this obligation by investigating your complaint and (apparently) advising the employee that his conduct was unacceptable -- at least, the conduct has apparently stopped. While it is understandable that you might continue to feel uncomfortable working with this employee, at this point your employer would have no further obligation to act -- unless and until this person again behaves in an offensive or hostile manner relating to your gender.

The answers in these columns are not intended as legal advice. The Department of Human Rights does not make a judgment on any case without carefully examining all the facts.

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