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Discrimination in the workplace is a pattern of behavior that singles out an employee or group of employees for unfair and/or unequal treatment based on specific protected characteristics. Harassment is unpleasant and unwanted behavior that is deliberate and consistent. There are Federal, State, and local laws that protect certain classes of individuals from unwanted harassment and discrimination in the workplace.  

In this article, we will explore everything you need to know about workplace discrimination and harassment in Illinois. If you believe you have been the victim of discrimination or harassment, the experienced attorneys at O’Flaherty Law Office can help you; call today for a free consultation.  

Here we will discuss:  

  • What is workplace Discrimination?  
  • What are the protected classes?  
  • What is workplace Harassment?  
  • What are the different kinds of harassment?  
  • Sexual Harassment  
  • What are the laws that protect employees?  
  • What is considered a Hostile Work Environment?  
  • How do I report workplace discrimination?  
  • Can I file a complaint against my employer for harassment?  
  • Do I Need an Attorney for Workplace Discrimination?  

Three Employees working together in office

What is Workplace Discrimination?  

Discrimination occurs in the workplace if, as a result of belonging to a particular “protected class,” you are treated in an unequal and unfair manner. Discrimination does not need to come from the management or other people in charge. It can be from employees to other employees, and it can occur during the hiring process or any other work-related activity.    

Your employer can be liable for discrimination if they allow it to continue and do not take appropriate steps to protect their employees.    

In certain situations, you do not even need to be an employee in Illinois to have a valid claim against discrimination.  For more general information on discrimination laws in Illinois read our article, Illinois Employment Discrimination Laws Explained.  

What are the Protected Classes?  

To fall under the legal protections against discrimination in the workplace, discriminatory behavior must be based on your:  

  • Race  
  • Ethnicity  
  • Religion  
  • Sex  
  • Sexual Orientation  
  • Disability  
  • Age  
  • National Origin  

These are protected under Federal Law and therefore apply to each of the 50 states. As will be explained below, state and local laws may afford more protections that can go above and beyond the protections offered by Federal statutes.    

Certain groups of people can fall into one of these categories and be protected though they are not explicitly listed. For example, if someone is discriminated against based on being pregnant, that is a protected category recognized federally and, therefore, in all 50 states.  

In addition to the protected classes listed above, in Illinois, an employer cannot discriminate against someone because of the following additional, Illinois-specific protected classes:  

  • Marital status  
  • Citizenship status  
  • Military and veteran status (including unfavorable military discharge)  
  • Arrest record  
  • Being the victim of domestic violence  
  • Being under an order of protection  
  • Not having a permanent address (being homeless)    

As an Illinois employee, you are protected under both the Federal anti-discrimination laws and the laws of the state of Illinois, along with any additional protections which may be specific to your city or village.  

What is Workplace Harassment?  

Harassment is a kind of discrimination in the workplace. Under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, harassment is unwelcome conduct based on any one of the protected classes listed above. Harassment is illegal under Federal Law when:  

  1. It becomes a necessity for continued employment or  
  1. The behavior is bad enough that an average person would think it creates a hostile or abusive work environment.  

It is essential to understand that the level of harassment must meet a specific legal threshold. It is not enough for the behavior to be simply rude or an inconvenience.  

What are the Different Kinds of Harassment?  

Harassment covers many different behaviors. It can be verbal, taking the form of slurs, demeaning statements, inappropriate remarks, and other spoken forms. Once again, these cannot simply be obnoxious statements. In order to be actionable, it must meet the legal threshold described in detail further below.  

Physical harassment includes any offensive and unwanted contact. The severity can range from unwanted touching to physical assault.  

Harassment can even be psychological, engaging in behavior that excludes one individual or a group of individuals and creates such mental anguish that a reasonable person would conclude it was a hostile work environment.  

If you have any doubts as to what you are experiencing is sufficient enough to be considered unlawful harassment, call the experienced attorneys at O’Flaherty Law today to discuss your case.  

Sexual Harassment

Since the advent of the #MeToo movement, the pervasiveness of sexual harassment has come to light. Sexual harassment can include any form of unwanted sexual advances. Examples include expecting sexual favors as part of the hiring process, sexual favors for continued employment, sexual innuendo or jokes, sharing pornography, etc.  

Because of the widespread attention that #MeToo brought to sexual harassment in the workplace, it is often the only harassment that people think of. However, as explained above, harassment can take many different forms.    

What are the Laws that Protect Employees?  

Federally, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission helps regulate workplace discrimination. It enforces the many Federal Laws that can apply, like the Civil Rights Act, which makes it illegal to discriminate against someone based on their race, color, religion, national origin, or sex, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the Equal Pay Act, Age Discrimination in Employment Act, etc.  

In Illinois, the agency that regulates discrimination in the workplace is known as the Department of Human Rights.    

The Illinois Human Rights Act defines unlawful discrimination as “discrimination against a person because of his or her actual or perceived: race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, age, sex, marital status, order of protection status, disability, military status, sexual orientation, pregnancy or unfavorable discharge from military service.”  

There might be local ordinances in place which can include additional protections or even help clearly define what is considered inappropriate behavior.    

In Chicago, for example, the Commission on Human Relations governs workplace discrimination and harassment. In Chicago, it is unlawful to discriminate against someone because of their race, color, national origin, ancestry, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, parental status, age, disability, source of income, military discharge status, or credit history.    

Employment law reading on a tablet

Chicago defines harassment as “slurs and other verbal conduct relating to an individual’s membership in a protected class when the conduct (1) has the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment; (2) has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance; or (3) otherwise adversely affects an individual’s employment opportunities.    

Whether or not behavior violates any one of these statutes is not always clear or self-evident. As you can see, some behavior that would be actionable in Chicago does not rise to the level of under the Federal statutes because Chicago has many more protected classes.  

Further, there are many different sets of laws that all work together to prevent harassment and discrimination. It can be overwhelming to try to make sense of it all or to know all the different protections that may be afforded to you in a specific jurisdiction.  

The experienced attorneys at O’Flaherty Law Office are ready to help you. Reach out today to discuss your case.  

What is Considered a Hostile Work Environment?

It takes more than an unpleasant work environment to meet the legal requirements of a hostile work environment. Likewise, just because you do not get along with another employee and their behavior bothers you, that does not necessarily mean they are unlawfully harassing you.    

To be considered a Hostile Work Environment, the following legal conditions must be met.  

  • The behavior must discriminate against one of the protected classes listed above  
  • It must be unwelcome behavior. That means the victim can prove that they requested the behavior to stop or complained to management or HR to try to get it to stop.  
  • The behavior must be pervasive and long-lasting. That means one or two rude comments will not suffice. It must be widespread behavior so that a reasonable person placed in that situation would think it is hostile, intimidating, or abusive.  
  • The behavior must be so severe that it prevents you from doing your job or progressing in your career.  

If these four elements are met, then you can potentially sue your employer for creating a hostile work environment in direct violation of the many Federal, State, and even local protections against such behavior.    

How Do I Report Workplace Discrimination?  

Your first step, if possible, is to inform Human Resources to see if anything can be done to abate the behavior. They cannot retaliate against you in any way for reporting unlawful discriminatory behavior.    

The next step is to report the conduct either to the Illinois Department of Human Rights or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In both cases, you are required first to file a charge with each respective governing body before you bring any kind of lawsuit.  

It is essential to try to document as much as you can. Differing minds can disagree on what is or is not harassment. The law cannot possibly list every specific problematic behavior to make it easy to understand what is allowed and what is forbidden. Keeping as complete of a record as possible can make it easier to prove that harassment did occur.    

Can I File a Complaint Against my Employer for Harassment?  

You can file a complaint against your employer for harassment. After you file a charge with the Illinois Department of Human Rights or the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, if the behavior meets the legal requirements, you will have what is essentially a right to sue.  

If these agencies do not think you have a case for discrimination or harassment, we will encourage you to reach out to an experienced attorney. After all, as explained previously, many jurisdictions have lists of protected classes that are much more extensive and inclusive than what may be offered on the state or Federal level. This information is not always obvious or common knowledge. An experienced attorney can evaluate your case and explain your legal options.    

Do I Need an Attorney for Workplace Discrimination?  

As with most things, you can choose to pursue your discrimination or harassment legal challenge on your own. However, this is a challenging area of the law that is hard to navigate. An Illinois employment attorney can help you maximize your chances of success.  


We as a society understand and recognize that to be effective and productive members of the workforce, and we cannot allow discrimination or harassment in the workplace. These ideals are evident in how many legal protections are afforded to employees, which expressly forbid these discriminatory behaviors. If you find yourself in a hostile work environment, consider reaching out to the legal professionals at O’Flaherty Law Office to discuss what options may be available to you.

Disclaimer: The information provided on this blog is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject matter. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute an attorney-client relationship. Each individual's legal needs are unique, and these materials may not be applicable to your legal situation. Always seek the advice of a competent attorney with any questions you may have regarding a legal issue. Do not disregard professional legal advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this blog.

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