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What types of discrimination are prohibited in the workplace?

Employers may not discriminate against employees or job applicants on the basis of their association with a protected class. Likewise, employers that fail to adequately address discrimination may be held liable for allowing or even maintaining a hostile workplace. A protected class is a category of individuals with a common characteristic, such as race or religious affiliation, who are protected by anti-discrimination laws. 

Acts of discrimination may appear in a variety of employment situations, including: 

  • Hiring and firing.
  • Compensation, assignment, or classification of employees.
  • Transfer, promotion, layoff, or recall.
  • Job advertisements.
  • Recruitment.
  • Testing.
  • Use of company facilities.
  • Training and apprenticeship programs.
  • Fringe benefits.
  • Pay, retirement plans, and disability leave.

Federal laws prohibit the following types of workplace discrimination:

  • Age. Anyone over the age of 40 is protected from adverse treatment based solely on their age.
  • Sex or gender. Discrimination on the basis of a person’s sex, gender, or sexual orientation is prohibited. 
  • Race or color. Race, ethnicity, and color may not influence how someone is treated.
  • Religion. Employers must provide reasonable accommodations for religious practices unless it creates an undue burden.
  • National origin. Protects people based on their real or perceived ethnic background, including citizenship or immigration status.
  • Disability. This includes physical and mental disability or previous medical conditions; employers must make reasonable accommodations for these employees.
  • Pregnancy. Pregnancy (or the possibility an employee may become pregnant) may not be a factor in how an employee is treated; employers must make reasonable accommodations for pregnant employees.
  • Genetic information. Employers (and prospective employers) may not make decisions based on a person’s genetic information.
  • Harassment (generally). Harassment is a form of discrimination against any protected class.
  • Sexual harassment. This includes unwelcome verbal or physical sexual advancements or requests for sexual favors.
  • Equal pay. Employers must provide equal pay for equal jobs, despite the person’s gender, age, race, religion, national origin, or disability.

It’s important to understand that anti-discrimination laws also protect those who are perceived to be part of a protected class. For instance, someone who is harassed for having a disability that they don’t actually have is still protected. Certain laws may not apply to your business if you have less than a certain number of employees or the employee making the claim has worked fewer than a certain number of hours. However, state or local laws may provide additional protections. 

Finally, it’s illegal for an employer or its managers to take retaliatory actions against employees who make valid complaints about discrimination, participate in an investigation into alleged acts of discrimination, or oppose acts of discrimination. 

What is an Anti-Discrimination Policy at work?

An Anti-Discrimination Policy is a written document that details the various types of discrimination that are not tolerated in the workplace. It also explains what steps your company will take to eliminate and prevent discrimination. The policy will explain the procedures for reporting instances of discrimination, including harassment, disciplinary measures for violations, training protocols, and a statement about retaliation. Each employee signs the document to confirm that they have read the policy and understand its terms.

When your employees receive and sign a written Anti-Discrimination Policy, in addition to your Employee Handbook, they are effectively “on notice” for any violations. This will help ensure that your staff is all on the same page and may provide some legal protection for your business as you’re able to show the efforts made to adequately address workplace discrimination.  

What should be included in an Anti-Discrimination Policy?

Your Anti-Discrimination Policy should cover federal, state, and local anti-discrimination laws that apply to your workplace. The content will vary by your location and company size, but should cover the following:

  • Acts in which discrimination is prohibited (i.e., hiring, promotion, benefits, etc.) and a statement that violations will be met with disciplinary action.
  • Sections explaining your company’s discrimination, harassment, and sexual harassment policies.
  • Statement of affirmative action (if applicable).
  • Procedures for reporting incidents of discrimination or harassment.
  • Statement about retaliation.
  • Disciplinary measures and remedies.
  • List of required anti-discrimination and anti-harassment training procedures.
  • Signature lines for both the employer and employee.

What recourse do employees have if they have been subjected to workplace discrimination?

Employees that have been subjected to workplace discrimination or harassment are advised to keep a journal of the incidents, keep any offensive emails or documents, and preserve any available evidence. They should contact their supervisor or HR department about the incident. 

Employers must take this initial notification seriously and investigate the claim. Let the employee know that you’re doing your due diligence by addressing the complaint and keeping them in the loop. An employee whose complaint has been ignored may file a legal claim against your company for contributing to a hostile workplace.

If the original claim is against you, the employer, as opposed to another employee in the company, then the person filing the claim has the right to file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). If they file a charge with a state or local agency that has an agreement with the EEOC (referred to as Fair Employment Practices Agencies), it may be automatically dual-filed with the federal EEOC. The agency will investigate the employee’s charge to determine whether they may file a legal claim of discrimination, harassment, or retaliation.

Make your business diverse, inclusive, and free from discrimination

It’s your duty as an employer to set the tone and state the expectations you have of your staff. This includes drafting a clear Anti-Discrimination Policy and putting in place procedures to deal with any incidents of discrimination or harassment that may occur. The goal is to avoid such incidents in the first place, but establishing your company’s culture starts at the top. If you have questions about discrimination, harassment, or other employment law issues, ask a Rocket Lawyer On Call® attorney for fast and affordable advice. 

This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.


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