Overview of types of illegal employment discrimination under federal law

Federal civil rights laws protect people from discrimination and harassment at work based on several personal characteristics.

There has been a great deal of publicity regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act, as it turned a quarter century old in July 2015. The ADA prohibits employment (and other types of) discrimination based on disability.

One of the latest federal civil rights laws in the United States the ADA added disability to those protected characteristics upon which employers may not base negative employment actions. Specifically, the Act forbids a covered employer from negatively impacting a term or condition of employment (hiring, firing, promoting, training, paying and more) because of a physical or mental disability.

Further, if a person with a disability is otherwise qualified, the employer must provide reasonable accommodations that allow the employee to perform the work, unless it would create an undue hardship on the employer.

The primary federal agency that enforces and prosecutes administrative claims for the ADA and other federal anti-discrimination laws is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or EEOC. The EEOC provides information about the various kinds of illegal employment discrimination under federal law on its website.

Other employee or job applicant characteristics that trigger federal protection against employment discrimination include:

  • Age: The Age Discrimination in Employment Act or ADEA protects persons at least 40 years old from employment discrimination and harassment based on age.
  • National origin: People may not be treated differently or harassed at work or in applying for jobs because of ethnicity (or perceived ethnicity), accent or country of origin; or because of association with people of a certain ethnicity.
  • Race or color: An employer may not discriminate against or allow harassment of an applicant or employee based on race, skin color or physical characteristics associated with a certain race; or for association with people of a certain race or color.
  • Gender: People of both genders in the same workplace must receive equal pay and benefits for the same work under the Equal Pay Act. Title VII (of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) also forbids employment discrimination based on sex, and sexual harassment (against a person of the same or opposite sex), meaning either the request of sexual favors in exchange for an employment benefit or the creation of a severely hostile work environment based on unwanted sexual comments, gestures, touching, pictures, jokes and other similar behavior.
  • Pregnancy: A type of sex discrimination, an employer may not discriminate against a woman because of pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions.
  • Genetic information: Employment discrimination or harassment based on genetic information or test results is illegal.
  • Religion: Religious discrimination or harassment at work or in hiring is prohibited, including that based on association with people of a certain religion, as well as workplace segregation based on religion. Religion, like disability, has certain reasonable-accommodation requirements. For example, in certain situations an employer must provide flexible scheduling or workplace modification to allow the practice of religion, including religious dress and grooming.

Finally, federal laws also protect employees against employer retaliation for having brought discrimination claims in good faith or testified in discrimination claims, reported discrimination to management or cooperated in discrimination investigations.

States also have anti-discrimination laws, some providing stronger protections than federal protections in some respects, including with respect to transsexualism, transgender and gender dysphoria protections. State and federal discrimination laws, as well as state and federal agencies and courts, are complicated and interrelated, requiring experienced legal counsel to protect employees from forfeiting any rights, missing deadlines, waiving claims or following incorrect procedures.

Likewise, employers should have knowledgeable attorneys to advise them in creating legal workplace practices and for defense of discrimination allegations.

With offices across the country and a strong international network (www.iaginternational.org), the employment lawyers at Shepherd, Finkelman, Miller & Shah, LLP, represent individuals and employers in a wide variety of employment matters.