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Does this Prestigious University Have a Racial Discrimination Problem?

By Dan Atkerson on November 21, 2016

Photo of woman on phone walking down a hallwayAn Indian-American PhD candidate at the University of Chicago was allegedly fired for a reporting racial discrimination problem in the workplace.  Sameena Azhar worked in the university’s Center for HIV Elimination while she was pursuing her graduate studies.

She observed that her white colleagues were getting preferential treatment in the workplace. For example, she noticed that the white employees had all received business cards, but when she requested one she was denied. She also claims that the nonwhite students were frequently physically separated from the white students on the job, and that the white students were given more flexible work schedules.

Azhar filed a formal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Illinois Department of Human Rights, and began the process of taking legal action.

According to the lawsuit, Azhar stopped receiving the usual assistance from her dissertation advisors after she filed the complaint. One faculty member even told her that she should stop complaining about discrimination if she wanted to complete her dissertation. She later was told that she might not receive credit for a publication she had cowritten if she continued her complaint, while others in the department removed her from important assignments. After continual mistreatment, she was eventually fired from her position.

Firing an Employee for Reporting Racial Discrimination is Illegal

It is illegal to fire or punish an employee for reporting discrimination in the workplace. This is meant to protect employees who stand up against bad behavior. If this woman really was fired for filing her complaint, the university could be found guilty of illegal workplace retaliation.

Other protected actions include reporting sexual harassment, gender discrimination, safety violations or taking disability leave. Employees have the legal right to seek justice when it comes to these important issues. Even if they do not win the case, their employer still cannot punish or fire them for raising the concern with the authorities.

If this woman’s claims are true, the lawsuit will hopefully pressure the leadership at the university to take a fairer approach to their workplace management. Everyone deserves the right to go to work without living in fear of discrimination.

Dan A. Atkerson is a Dallas employment lawyer who fights passionately on behalf of victims of racial discrimination, sexual harassment and other forms of workplace injustice.

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