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Why workplace harassment of immigrants can be illegal

You worked hard to get your U.S. citizenship or your green card. Maybe you’re in the U.S. on a visa granted because of your professional experience or skills. However, some of your colleagues and maybe even your manager don’t seem to see you as anything but a “foreigner.”

“National origin” is a protected class for employees and job applicants under federal law and under Colorado state law. Even if a person wasn’t born in another country, they can’t be discriminated against or harassed because they’re perceived as not being American or even because their spouse was born in another country.

Harassment vs. teasing

What constitutes harassment is not always a black-and-white issue. Certainly, if someone makes derogatory remarks to you about your country of birth, your accent or your ethnicity or uses slurs, that’s harassment.

However, sometimes insulting remarks are couched as “friendly teasing.” An offhand, thoughtless comment by a co-worker who is otherwise friendly toward you wouldn’t be considered harassment. However, what if these comments, “jokes,” notes left at your desk, your locker or your car, veiled threats and other incidents become pervasive? Then you’ve got a hostile work environment, and you can and should take action.

Such harassment day after day can be a threat to a person’s mental and physical health. It can also lead to real discrimination in promotions, raises and other opportunities if a supervisor or manager starts to believe that someone is unqualified based on their national origin.

What can you do?

If you’re facing workplace harassment because of your national origin and/or immigration status, it’s wise to talk with your manager first – unless they’re part of the problem. If that’s the case, it’s best to go straight to the human resources department. Meanwhile, keep track of the incidents. If you have evidence like notes, emails or texts, save them. If there are witnesses, make a note of who they are.

If you can get no help within your workplace, it may be wise to seek the help of an attorney to determine what options you have.