Federal, state and local laws protect employees from discrimination across a wide variety of characteristics. Federal anti-discrimination laws prohibits employers from discrimination on the basis of race, religion, national origin, sex, disability, age, pregnancy, and genetic information. Some states go further and protect employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, veteran status, marital status, domestic victim status, and certain elements of criminal or arrest records.
Discrimination involves differential treatment or harassment of an employee based on his or her actually belonging to a certain group (i.e. race, gender, disability) or based on the belief that an employee belongs to a certain group. Discrimination can also include differential treatment or harassment based on perceived characteristics or stereotypes associated with a group. Anti-discrimination laws means that people of all groups (races, genders, disability status, etc.) must be treated equally in all aspects of the employment process, including help-wanted ads, interviews, pre-employment testing, hiring, job assignments, shift assignments, promotions, compensation, benefits, job training, layoffs or termination.
Discrimination may come from supervisors, co-workers or in limited circumstances from other individuals, such as vendors or clients. If your employer is creating or allowing an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment to exist, these practices are also against the law.
Discrimination includes harassment based on these characteristics. This includes any action that causes an employee to feel uncomfortable at work because of these characteristics. Such conduct includes “jokes” about a particular group of people, derogatory comments about an employee’s characteristics (race, gender, disability, etc.) or certain groups of people, hostile comments or actions toward the employee based on his or her characteristics (race, gender, disability, etc.), the display of drawings or pictures that negatively portray people belonging to certain groups, or any other action that creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment, or interferes with the employee’s work performance. The harassing actions must be “severe and pervasive” to constitute illegal discrimination, meaning that an isolated incident or “offhand teasing” would not give cause for a lawsuit.
Differential treatment occurs when an employee is subjected to adverse employment action because he or she belongs to a particular group or is seen as belonging to a certain group. This may be very direct, such as when an employee is not hired or is fired because of race, gender, disability, etc. More subtle differential treatment occurs when the employer has a policy or practice which inherently discriminates against members of a particular group without an important and legitimate business need. For example, if the employer requires all employees to meet certain height and weight requirements, people of Asian descent (who are statistically lighter and smaller than individuals in other ethnic groups) will be disproportionately affected by this rule. For an employer to legally maintain such a policy, the height and weight requirements must be clearly related to the physical demands of a particular job.
It is illegal for an employer to retaliate against an employee for complaining about an employer’s failure to abide by employment laws. An employer may not fire, demote or discipline an employee for any formal or informal complaints made about discrimination, harassment or such other employment law.