What Is Discrimination?
Much like retaliation, the word ‘discrimination’ often brings a very specific scenario to mind. Most people will think of being fired (or not being hired in the first place) because of their race or sex. While that scenario does fall under the category of workplace discrimination, there are plenty of other behaviors that are also considered discriminatory. In fact, any negative employment decision – whether that be termination or simply unnecessarily increasing your workload – could be discriminatory if the reason for it is because of your membership in a protected class. For the purposes of this article, the term “protected class” refers to the ten areas we discuss below.
Perhaps the most notorious example of discrimination (and the one that first comes to many people’s minds) is racial discrimination. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made racial discrimination illegal and has been in effect for over 50 years. Despite that, people still find ways to get themselves in serious legal trouble by discriminating based on race. This applies to any sort of punishment or negative action (even just unnecessary reprimanding) based solely on race and applies to all races, without exception. No matter who you are, you are a member of this protected class. Whether you are in the minority or majority race in your area, you can become the victim of racial discrimination.
Many people have the tendency to mix up race and national origin, but they are entirely separate protected classes under Title VII. For example, if we were to look at the hiring practices of a certain company where the employer treated all races equally but threw out all the resumes of applicants from Canada, there may be a case for a national origin discrimination. Once again, all peoples and nationalities are protected under this law. You can be located in the United States and from the United States, and still be a victim of national origin discrimination.
This one is pretty straightforward. Making employment decisions based on the sex of the employee (or potential employee) is illegal. This is also part of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In more recent years, the EEOC has stated that Title VII also includes discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
However, there are times when the nature of a job requires that people of a certain sex be hired. For example, if you were looking for a locker room attendant for a women’s locker room, it would be reasonable to only hire a woman. These instances are pretty rare, and usually, it is the employer’s job to prove that the hire being a certain sex is a bona fide occupational requirement.
In line with sex discrimination, employers are not allowed to discriminate against women who are or who may become pregnant. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 amended Title VII to include this stipulation as a subcategory of sex discrimination. This one is also pretty straightforward. If you have experienced the consequences of a negative employment decision because you became pregnant (or planned to), then it is possible that you were the victim of pregnancy discrimination.
According to the EEOC, religious discrimination doesn’t just cover members of major religions, but can also cover those who hold “sincerely held religious, ethical, or moral beliefs”. This includes being associated with a particular religion or being married to someone of said religion. There are two important parts of religious discrimination that are worth noting in this brief overview:
- It must be a sincerely held belief. If you just quickly find and join a religion in order to avoid inconvenience or policies at work, you may have a hard time making a case.
- The employer must reasonably accommodate religious needs unless it would cause them undue hardship. If the accommodation would be too costly or burdensome, the employer may not be obligated to accommodate the religious belief.
Finally, an employer cannot force an employee to participate in a religious activity as part of their job. For example, your boss can’t mandate that you attend church. And if some employees do attend church and you do not, the employer can’t treat you differently because of that.
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) made age discrimination illegal; however, the law is interestingly specific. Up until recently, the protected classes were rather broad. Everyone is protected from racial, religious, sex, and national origin discrimination. However, not everyone is protected by ADEA; only people over the age of 40 are members of this protected class. Essentially, you can’t be fired or treated unfavorably due to age. There are no protections against such activities if you are under the age of 40, though some states do have protections for younger workers.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) not only covers people with disabilities, but also covers anyone with a history of having a disability, or anyone who is perceived to have a disability (whether they actually have one or not).
Once again, the employer must make reasonable accommodation for the employee but does not have to anything that would create undue hardship for the employer. The EEOC gives the example that making your workplace wheelchair accessible is a reasonable accommodation, though it does not give an example of an accommodation that would cause undue hardship. It simply states that accommodations may cause undue hardship if they are “too difficult or too expensive to provide”.
The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) provides employment protections for veterans. Like many of the other protected classes, this means an employer cannot treat you unfairly because of your veteran status.
In the same vein as national origin discrimination, it is prohibited to discriminate based on citizenship status. Regardless of whether the person is a US citizen or not, if they have the legal documentation to work in the United States, they should be treated the same as other employees. There are a few specific circumstances where certain jobs require that the employee be a US citizen, but these are the exception.
Genetic information is perhaps the most obscure topic we’ll address in this article. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 introduced this idea as DNA tests and other types of genetic studies started gaining popularity. The rules and stipulations regarding genetic information are succinctly summed up by a quote from the EEOC:
“An employer may never use genetic information to make an employment decision because genetic information is not relevant to an individual’s current ability to work.”
What Should I Do If I Have Been Discriminated Against?
If you feel like you have been a victim of workplace discrimination, you may want to get in touch with us. We would be happy to help you navigate the nuances of employee law. If you would rather go it alone, the first step would be to file a claim with the EEOC. They may take your case for you, but if not, you may receive clearance to file a lawsuit.