Federal law prohibits companies of a specified size from illegally discriminating against its employees. In general, these rules are intended to prevent employers from taking adverse employment actions on the basis of an employee’s membership or perceived membership in a protected class. Adverse actions can include failure to hire, termination, demotion, failure to train, loss of pay, and retaliation.
Protected classes include race, color, religion, sex, national origin, gender, pregnancy, age for those over 40, disabilities, and genetic information. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces many of the federal laws that set forth protected characteristics, such as:
Some states and cities have enacted stricter laws that prohibit discrimination based on gender identity, sexual orientation, status as a domestic violence victim, political activism, HIV/AIDS or other health condition, and military or veterans status. These rules also may extend to a broader range of employers than those covered by the federal laws.
The following are some types of employment discrimination prohibited under federal and/or state laws:
If you are the victim of harassment based on your membership in a protected class, it is important to document any conduct you believe arises to the level of harassment or discrimination and to keep copies of performance evaluations and other personnel documents, in case an employer tries to retaliate against you for complaining.
Under Title VII, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, it is illegal for most employers to discriminate in any aspect of employment. Title VII, ADA, and GINA apply to private employers, educational institutions, and state and local governments that have 15 or more employees. The ADEA covers those with 20 or more employees. In addition to the discriminatory actions listed above, these statutes prohibit discrimination in job advertisements, compensation, fringe benefits, pay, recruitment, harassment, and retaliation.
The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in any employment practice. A disability is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one of more major life activities, usually major bodily functions or those that most people can perform without difficulty. Those who have a record of such impairment and even those regarded as having a disability are protected against discrimination. A private employer subject to ADA engages in unlawful conduct if it takes a prohibited action based on an actual or perceived impairment. For example, if an employee is perceived as having mild mental retardation and is demoted from higher-paying to lower-paying duties because co-workers don’t want to interact with the employee, the new manager will likely be found to have violated ADA. The result would be the same if it turns out that the employee does not have mild mental retardation.
To take another example, under Title VII and many state laws, sexual harassment is prohibited. Harassment is unwelcome conduct based on the victim’s membership in a protected class. This behavior is considered unlawful if dealing with it is a condition of continued employment, or it is so pervasive that it creates a work environment that a reasonable person would consider it intimidating, abusive, or hostile. Minor isolated incidents or petty irritations are not harassment, but repeated offensive incidents may create a hostile work environment. A single severe instance of harassment, such as an assault or an overt demand for sexual favors, may be actionable.
If you successfully bring an action under the federal anti-discrimination laws, the remedies potentially available to you may include back pay, hiring, reinstatement, promotion, front pay, reasonable accommodation, and other actions that would put you in the position you would have been in if not for the discrimination. You may also be able to recover damages for actual monetary losses and mental anguish, as well as expert witness fees, court costs, and attorneys’ fees. If a private employer acts with intent, malice, or reckless indifference, punitive damages may be awarded.