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Discrimination Overview

Anti-discrimination laws have helped thousands of people join the workforce and become financially independent, useful members of society. Although each state may have its own set of laws, the federal suite of employment discrimination laws is the minimum protection employers must provide to their employees. Employers generally cannot discriminate in their hiring, firing, promotion, or compensation practices on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, age, or disability unless there is a bona fide occupational qualification -- in other words, a quality that someone must possess in order to perform the job well. Read through this section to get a general overview of the federal and state protections against employment discrimination.

Employment Discrimination: Overview

Since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's there have been a number of important laws enacted that aim to prevent an employer from discriminating against employees because of their race, national origin, gender, or religion. The most prominent of these laws is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits those who employ fifteen or more workers from discrimination. Title VII makes it illegal to refuse to hire, discipline, fire, deny training, fail to promote, pay less, demote, or harass an employee because of their race, national origin, gender, or religion. It is also illegal for an employer to adopt a policy or practice that disproportionately impacts a protected class. Other kinds of discrimination include:

  • Age Discrimination - The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) bars discrimination against employees or applicants who are over the age of forty by any employer with twenty or more employees. Unlike Title VII, the ADEA does not protect against practices that have a disparate impact on older employees.
  • Disability Discrimination - The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and Rehabilitation Act bar discrimination against the disabled. Unlike other civil rights laws a plaintiff under this law must show that they are in fact disabled or were regarded by the employer as disabled. However, is disability is shown the plaintiff gets more than protection against discrimination; they also have a right to reasonable accommodation for their disability.
  • National Origin Discrimination - The Immigration Reform and Control Act bars employers from discriminating against a U.S. citizen or intended citizen on the basis of their national origin.
  • Equal Pay Discrimination - The federal Equal Pay Act requires any employer subject to the Fair Labor Standards Act to provide equal pay to men and women who perform equal work unless the difference is due to seniority, merit, or some other factor not based on sex.

Dealing with Discrimination: Tips for Employees

Although federal, state, and local laws may prohibit discrimination and harassment on the basis of your race, ethnicity, national origin, sex, religion, disability, pregnancy, or age in the workplace it may still be unclear what to do when you are the subject of discrimination. In most circumstances it is wise to begin by making your employer aware that you feel discrimination or harassment is taking place and ensure that they are aware that you take the matter seriously. Requesting an investigation and documentation when incidents take place help you document the situation and may eliminate the problem. This action also ensures that if you sue the employer cannot claim ignorance of the situation.

Keep a diary that records incidents including details such as date, time, people involved or witnesses, and details of the discrimination. This information can be useful for the organization and presentation of evidence if you later need to sue. Employees should also keep objects such as pictures, emails, or other signs of harassment for use as evidence. Discrimination is often hidden, making every bit of evidence important and worth preservation.

Review your company's anti-discrimination policy and the state and federal laws to determine which rules or laws relate to your situation. Laws may vary in their evidentiary requirements, definitions, or available remedies. Depending on your situation you may consider contacting the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the government agency responsible for overseeing compliance for many federal anti-discrimination laws. State Equal Employment Agencies may be able to provide additional assistance.

Finally, contacting an attorney to pursue the matter in court can help you navigate a complicated network of laws and determine the correct venue and posture to pursue your claims.

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