The Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VII, set the bar in the United States when it comes to discrimination in the workplace. This ground-breaking law made it illegal to discriminate against certain groups of people in any sort of workplace situation, including but not limited to hiring, firing, promoting, or demoting an employee. The groups that are protected have changed somewhat over the years, as new vulnerable populations are added to the list.
The Act began by disallowing discrimination based on factors such as race, color, religion, national origin, or sex. However, in recent years, the law has expanded to include a prohibition against discrimination based upon sexual orientation or sexual identity, among other things. These laws are codified by the Act and enforced by the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC).
What Is Discrimination?
Before we dive into the different types of discrimination, it is important to be clear about what discrimination actually is. Essentially, whenever an employee or job applicant is treated differently or given fewer opportunities based on physical, biological, or social characteristics, this is discrimination. People are people, and the law may not be able to control what a certain employer thinks about those from certain ethnic or racial groups – but the law can certainly make it illegal for that employer to treat their employees differently based on any such characteristic.
Here are some examples of discrimination to help clarify the idea.
- Paying a lesser salary to one employee who is in the same position as another, based on any of the protected characteristics.
- Denying benefits to certain employees.
- Showing a preference for a certain type of candidate in a job advertisement.
- Only recruiting candidates of a specific color, race, sex, etc.
- Being more flexible with one employee over another when it comes to maternity or disability leave.
These are just a light sampling of potential circumstances wherein an employer can exhibit discriminatory practices. As you can imagine, there are many, many more circumstances that could apply. Basically, any time an employer shows “favoritism” based on group status or protected characteristics, it may have broken the law by engaging in discrimination.
Types of Discrimination
The following are common types of discrimination that are found in the workplace.
Age – Because of the Age in Discrimination Employment Act (ADEA), it is illegal to discriminate against anyone over the age of 40 because of their age. Although anyone under 40 is not protected federally, some state laws offer that protection.
Sex – Title VII makes it illegal to discriminate because of an employee’s gender. This has been expanded to include an employee’s sexual orientation and sexual identity – specifically those in the LGBTQ community.
Religion – The Civil Rights Act forbids employers from discriminating because of an employee’s religion. This not only covers the major religions, but it also applies to anyone with closely held, ethical or moral beliefs. The Act not only prohibits religion-based discrimination, but it also mandates that employers must make reasonable accommodations for that person to practice their faith (e.g., prayer time) as well as wear religious attire (e.g., headscarves).
Race/Color/National Origin – An employer cannot discriminate against employees or applicants based on their race, the color of their skin, or the country that they originate from. This includes physical characteristics beyond skin color like hair texture, etc. The Act also covers employees who are married to someone of color, or any employee who has the same physical traits as someone of color but is not actually of that race or national origin.
Disability – The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act mandate that employers cannot discriminate against employees or job applicants because of physical or mental disabilities – or any person who is married to someone with a disability. In addition, employers must make reasonable accommodations for disabled employees.
Pregnancy – The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) forbids discrimination based on a woman’s pregnancy, childbirth, or any medical conditions arising from pregnancy or childbirth. Furthermore, any resulting impairments are to be afforded the same considerations and benefits as someone who is temporarily disabled.
Genetic Information – This is more recent protection as it is a result of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA). According to Title II of the Act, employees and applicants cannot be discriminated against because of any available genetic information. This includes the result of any genetic test for an individual or their family and forbids the requirement of genetic testing as a basis of employment.
Retaliation – One form of discrimination that is not based on common factors or characteristics is retaliation. Retaliation happens whenever employees exercise their rights at work, often to the detriment of their employer, and the employer in any way attempts to “punish” them within the work environment. For instance, if a woman exercises her right to be free of sexual harassment by filing a complaint against her employer, the employer is not allowed to fire her, cut her work hours, cut her pay, or in any way retaliate against her.
Military Status – The U.S. Department of Justice describes this as discrimination against an employee or applicant because of their current or future membership in any branch of the military. In addition, the employer is required to re-employ employees who have to leave for specific periods of time because they are being deployed in service to our country.
Anti-Discrimination Attorney Here for You
If you are an employer, there are a few ways that you can help prevent discrimination at your workplace. Creating and distributing employee handbooks that explain the rules and rights of employees is a great start. Holding periodic employee training seminars can also help. However, speaking with an experienced employment lawyer to make sure that you have crossed all your T’s and dotted all your I’s, insofar as protecting your employees from discriminatory practices, is by far the most important thing you can do to ensure compliance and the continuation of your business enterprise.