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What is discrimination in the workplace?

Many people have a fundamental misunderstanding of what discrimination in the workplace means. The word “discrimination” generally means treating someone differently than someone else; however, the legal definition of discrimination is much narrower than the general, everyday meaning of discrimination. For example, workplace discrimination on the basis of one’s eye color or hairstyle is not generally illegal discrimination, but discrimination at work on the basis of race is illegal. This article seeks to clarify what the legal term “employment discrimination” means and how federal anti-discrimination laws make it illegal.

Reasons for Employment Discrimination Which Are Illegal

Employment discrimination laws protect certain classifications of people from discrimination due to the potential vulnerability of those categories of people to workplace discrimination. In this way, employment discrimination laws do not punish irrational or random discrimination such as discrimination on the basis of hair color. Rather, the employment anti-discrimination laws seek to protect employees that have historically been discriminated against and are at constant risk for discrimination in modern American workplaces.

Federal employment discrimination law generally prevents discrimination on the basis of the following characteristics: race, color, national origin, gender, religion, age, disability, pregnancy, military service, family medical concerns, and genetics. Certain other categories of people may be protected under employment discrimination laws, and if you believe you are a victim of employment discrimination, you should consult an experienced employment law attorney.

A Brief Note about Sexual Orientation Discrimination

Sexual orientation discrimination is an unsettled area of law, and whether employment discrimination laws protect LGBT persons from discrimination depends on where you live. Many believe that federal anti-gender discrimination laws apply to LGBT persons because LGBT identity is an issue of gender. It is expected that the Supreme Court will eventually rule on this issue, but until the matter is settled by the Supreme Court, it is uncertain to what extent anti-gender discrimination law protects LGBT persons.

Employer Actions Which May Be Illegal

Anti-discrimination law makes it illegal for any employer to take an “adverse employment action” on the basis of a protected classification. The term “adverse employment action” is defined very broadly and certainly includes hiring, firing, cutting pay, demoting, or denying perks, benefits, and pensions. Adverse employment action may also be a work re-assignment or other type of work-related punishment. Workplace harassment is also illegal where the harassment involves trading sex for workplace status or if the harassment creates a hostile work environment.

What Laws Protect Employees from Illegal Workplace Discrimination?

Most workplace discrimination is made illegal by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Some anti-discrimination laws have more specific applications, however, such as the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Many state laws also bar other forms of discrimination, and state laws often overlap with federal law or fill small gaps in federal discrimination categories (for example, federal anti-discrimination law does not make firing a female employee because she is a woman illegal if the employer has less than 15 employees, but most state anti-discrimination laws make this firing scenario illegal).

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