Intern Discrimination at Work

Oftentimes, interns are the lowest on the totem pole in the workplace. As a result, interns lack bargaining power and can be more vulnerable to workplace discrimination than others. Interns, however, share the same or very similar rights to “normal” employees. Get more information on your rights to not be discriminated against below.

It depends. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) only protects specific classes of people, known as protected classes, from workplace discrimination. These classes of people are protected from discrimation when it involves: 

  • unfair treatment;

  • harassment

  • denial of a reasonable workplace accommodation needed because of belief or disability; 

  • improper questions or disclosure of genetic or medical information; and

  • retaliation for filing a complaint.

You might be a victim of hair discrimination. Hair discriminaiton is when an employer has a hair or grooming policy that unequally impacts people with certain hair types. Such policies often discriminate against natural, curly, textured hair. In effect, people of color, specifically black women, are unequally impacted by these types of policies.

Fortunately, some states have adopted the CROWN Act, which stands for “Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.” For example, in California, the CROWN Act prevents employers from using race neutral grooming policies that in reality disparately impact people of color. Only 4 other states, Virginia, New Jersey, New York, and Maryland have adopted similar laws. However, many other states and the federal government have introduced similar bills.

You are entitled to a discrimination-free workplace. One form of discrimination is sexual harassment. The Code of Federal Regulation (CFR) established that there are 3 ways your supervisor’s conduct may be considered sexual harassment:

  1. If submission to the inappropriate conduct is explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of your employment

  2. If submission to or rejection of the inappropriate conduct is the basis of the employment decisions affecting you (demotion, termination, etc.)

  3. The inappropriate conduct, in purpose or effect, unreasonably interferes with your work performance or creates a hostile work environment.

For example, the law will not protect you from one offhand comment or occasional teasing. Consider asking yourself these questions:

  • How often does my employer make uncomfortable or offensive comments? 

  • Has my career suffered in any way from the inappropriate conduct or comments?

If you feel as if you are being sexually harassed, you have many options. You can…

  • Review your company’s policies: Check your employee manual or handbook and look for policies on workplace harassment. 

  • Take notes: It is important to keep detailed notes on the inappropriate conduct in case you need them as proof later on. When you experience inappropriate conduct, you should immediately write down as many details as you can about the interaction. Include details such as the date, the time, the witnesses, the conduct, who made the inappropriate comments, and your response to the comments. Try to stay as objective as possible. If you have contacted HR or your supervisor, keep the emails as well. Then, store all of these notes in a safe place.

  • Ask your supervisor to stop: If you are comfortable doing so, the most direct way to address the situation is to ask your supervisor to stop the inappropriate conduct. You should do this in writing, in case you need proof later in a harassment claim. If you are more comfortable addressing your supervisor in person, consider taking a trusted coworker with you as a witness.

  • Speak out against harassment: It is perfectly legal for you to discuss the comments you have been receiving to really anyone, including coworkers and superiors. Do not worry, because your employer cannot retaliate, that is fire or demote you for doing so.

  • Report the harassment to HR or your boss: While it may be uncomfortable, reporting the conduct to HR is important. Without reporting the conduct, it may be more difficult for your employer to address the inappropriate behavior if it has not been internally reported.

  • Do nothing: It is up to you to share your story. 

It depends on your company’s workplace dating policy. However, even if your company permits workplace relationships, dating your supervisor may not be the best idea. 

Because there is an unequal power balance between yourself and your supervisor, such relationships can be problematic. As your superior, your supervisor may have authority to demote, suspend, or even fire you. Because of this, whether the relationship is consensual becomes questionable.

An additional issue with superior-subordinate relationships is favoritism. Because of their romantic interests, your superior may provide you with additional benefits or promotions. This often creates resentment among your fellow employees and decreases office morale. 

Also, if you and your superior make public displays of affection or make sexual comments to each other, it may make your fellow employees uncomfortable. If such comments or conduct create a hostile work environment, you may be liable for sexual harassment.

Another consideration is the possibility of breaking up while you are still employed at your company. If you break up, you may become vulnerable to sexual harassment. Sexual harassment can include your ex speaking negatively of you or your sexual performance or your ex continuing to touch or speak to your sexually. Also, you may be more vulnerable to retaliation. That is, your superior may try to damage your career. Know that this is often illegal, depending on the conduct. Learn more about retaliation here.

It depends. Every company has its own policy. For example, some companies outright ban workplace relationships, while others allow it so long as it is disclosed and documented. 

If your company permits workplace relationships, you should avoid making public displays of affection or sexual banter. Every employee is entitled to a discrimination-free workplace, and such conduct may make others uncomfortable, creating a hostile work environment. This may make both you and your employer liable to discrimination claims.

While you may complain, your supervisor is most likely not required to do anything to help you. Workplace bullying is common and completely legal. Unfortunately, your fellow interns and even your superiors may bully and harass you. However, if the bullying or harassment is directed against a protected class of people, then the bullying may qualify as unlawful discrimination. For example, if your coworkers are excluding you specifically due because of your race, disability, or sexual orientation, you are most likely suffering from harassment, not mere bullying.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.