Seeing your coworker get the promotion you have coveted for a long time can certainly leave you feeling disgruntled and wondering why you were overlooked. But let’s face it: an employer is not bound by law to promote an employee; employers often consider several factors before making their decision. However, if you feel that your employer’s decision to pass you over was discriminative, you may have a legal basis to challenge this decision.
At will employment
In the U.S., employment is largely on an at will basis. This means that an employer can terminate employment at any time, and they can also choose whether or not to promote you. Unless there is a written or verbal contract between you and your employer guaranteeing promotion after a specific time, your employer has no obligation to promote you. If indeed, there is such a contractual agreement, and you are passed over for a promotion, you may file a civil lawsuit against your employer for breach of contract.
Limitations of a breach of contract lawsuit
Even though you could technically sue your employer for a breach of contract, the courts will probably not award you damages. Damages are typically awarded when the plaintiff loses something and not when they fail to receive something from the defendant. As such, even if your employer had made a promise to promote you, it would be difficult to persuade a civil court to grant you damages.
Challenging discrimination internally
If you believe that your employer overlooked you and chose someone else on the basis of race, age, sex, religion, ethnicity, pregnancy, color or genetic information, you could ask your internal Human Resource manager to mediate between you and the person who is in charge of promotions in your organization. Most of the time, the Human Resource manager may be unable to resolve the problem because they too are just an employee.
External legal channels
If you are completely unable to challenge the decision to pass you over and you are convinced that you have been discriminated against, you have the right to file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC will conduct investigations to determine if indeed discrimination took place. The EEOC can sue your employer on your behalf if they discriminated against you. Alternatively, you can choose to sue your employer on your own in a civil court.
Before bringing your case to the EEOC, it is important to gather extensive proof of discrimination. Did your employer or supervisor give an explanation that implied someone else was better than you based on their age, race, religion, sex, ethnicity, nationality or genetic makeup? Were you excluded from a test where other candidates were included? Were the reasons your employer gave you for non-promotion unrelated to business or your work? Gather as much evidence as you can to support your case.
Being overlooked for a position in the organization can cause you to want to take revenge. Taking legal action may seem like the best alternative but the truth is, your options are very limited. Unless you can prove that you were discriminated against, there is very little legal recourse you can pursue. Dealing with the matter internally by finding out why you were passed over could help you do better at the next promotion opportunity.