There was a time not long ago when gay people hid their sexual orientation from their employers to avoid disrupting their careers.

Gwen Marcus, the legal counsel for the Showtime network, helped the network launch the television show “Queer as Folk” in 2000, and says the studio’s management relied on her for advice on lesbian issues. But when she first started work for the network in the 1980s, she kept her identity as a lesbian hidden.

Marcus will speak at the Capital Region Minority Chamber of Commerce’s Diversity Summit on Wednesday, May 3, from 8 to 11:30 a.m. at Educational Testing Service, 660 Rosedale Road, Princeton. Tickets are $50. For more information, visit www.capitalregionminoritychamber.org. The theme of the summit, fittingly, is “Reaching Out: Connecting with the LGBTQ Business Community.”

Despite the success of Marcus and other gay, lesbian, and transgender businesspeople, anyone with other than a straight sexual orientation runs the risk of facing discrimination in the workplace. In New Jersey, discrimination or harassment because of this is illegal: sexual orientation and gender identity are “protected categories” under the state’s law against discrimination.

And that’s where Jacqueline Tillmann comes in. Tillmann, who will speak as part of a panel at the diversity summit, is an employment lawyer whose practice, Lewis Tillmann Law Offices in Princeton, represents workers in employment law disputes. Tillmann has taken clients who say they were discriminated against because of age, gender, disability, national origin, religion, and other protected characteristics, and continues to get clients who face harassment because of sexual orientation.

In one recent case, Tillmann represented a salesman who said his employer denied him a promotion to a larger territory because he was gay. “The employer felt like the new clients in this larger territory would not be receptive to someone who was, as he said, in the ‘gay lifestyle,’” Tillmann says. “The employer himself felt like he had no problem with the individual who happened to be gay. He knew he was gay, and he hired him.” Ultimately the case was settled.

Tillmann says that in another recent case, a man who worked loading trucks was bullied by co-workers because he was gay. “The coworkers felt like it was a macho atmosphere, and they felt like he didn’t fit that stereotype,” she says. “They harassed the poor man relentlessly until he had a nervous breakdown.” The man’s co-workers put a noose in his locker, showed him pictures of nude women, set him up on dates with women, took him to a strip club, and refused to change their shirts in the locker room while he was there. The employer didn’t do anything to stop the harassment, Tillmann says. Again, the employee settled.

“Employers have an obligation to make sure the workplace is free of any employment discrimination, whatever kind that is,” Tillmann says. “And if there is a complaint of discrimination, they are legally obligated to investigate that complaint and take it seriously.”

Tillmann has advice for employers who want to avoid legal entanglements about discrimination.

Investigate every complaint in good faith. Employers are legally obligated to look into such complaints and make a reasonable determination about whether the allegations are true. Tillmann recommends bringing in a lawyer for serious discrimination and harassment complaints. The investigation should be done swiftly because taking too long can be considered a form of retaliation against the employee.

Protect the complainant from retaliation, even if the complaint is not valid. Tillmann says she has had clients whose original complaints did not hold up, but who won settlements anyway because they were retaliated against for complaining. If the complaint does turn out to be valid, the employer should take steps to protect the person who complained, though that does not necessarily mean firing the offender.

Communicate the results of the investigation to the complainant to the affected employee, though details of the punishment to the accused (if there is any) are not necessary.

She also had advice for people who are being victimized by workplace discrimination or harassment: in order for a claim to be successful, the discrimination has to be severe or pervasive. For instance, a supervisor has to say something outrageous and egregious once, but smaller incidents over a longer period of time could constitute a pervasive event.

Tillmann understands both sides of the employer-employee dispute because she has represented both during her legal career.

Tillmann envisioned a legal career from a surprisingly young age: all of her Barbie dolls were lawyers. She chalks it up to the influence of her family. Her father once had ambitions of being a lawyer but started a family instead at a young age. The family lived in Washington, D.C., where her father worked for the Congressional Budget Office and her mother was a teacher. There was, however, a lawyer in the family because, as Tillmann recalls, her father practically forced his younger brother into the legal profession.

“I grew up hearing stories of litigating at the dinner table,” she says.

Tillmann earned a law degree at the University of Maryland and went to work for State Farm, where she defended litigation. She later moved to Wisconsin, where she practiced employee law under the mentorship of James Hall, who represented the NAACP, and Irv Charne, who worked on the Brown vs. Board of Education case.

She later moved to Princeton, where she practiced employment law for corporations. She ultimately founded her own firm, switching to the employee side of the table. Today Tillmann lives in Princeton with her husband and two daughters. She is a member of the Witherspoon Presbyterian Church, which has a strong social justice component.

Tillmann says New Jersey’s anti-discrimination laws make her practice possible because they allow plaintiffs to win legal fees from defendants. “That allows me to have this practice,” she says. “Most of the people who come to me have been terminated, or they’re about to be terminated, so most people don’t come to me with the deep pockets that many corporations have.” This means that Tillmann can put in years of work for a client who cannot pay.

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