Illegal Discrimination in the Workplace

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Since the civil rights movement that helped in the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employment discrimination laws in the United States have sought to protect virtually every individual from discrimination in the hiring and employment process.  These laws are often amended and expanded to include newer forms of discrimination and other employment issues that have arisen over the past five decades.  This trend will most likely continue, but there is already a large body of federal laws protecting the rights of virtually any potential worker in the American workforce.  Covered below are some of the more comprehensive laws addressing illegal discrimination in the workplace.

Filing a Complaint with the EEOC

When an employee files a complaint with the EEOC, the employer will be notified of the civil rights claim by the EEOC.  At this juncture, the EEOC may elect to investigate a charge as a follow-up or a priority investigation based on the credible amount of information contained in the initial civil rights complaints.  In a common investigation, the EEOC may request documents from employers, interview other employees, and personally visit sites of alleged discrimination.  During the investigations, the EEOC may seek to mediate a settlement between employers and charging parties, but if this proves unsuccessful, continued investigation occurs, or at any point, the EEOC can dismiss a claim based on lack of evidence.  At this point, charging parties have no more than ninety (90) days to file suit against their employer. 

If the EEOC does deem a civil rights suit worthwhile of pursuing, the employer and charging party will be informed through a “letter of determination” that a violation occurred, and the EEOC will attempt conciliation with employer to end the discriminatory practice.  If conciliation breaks down, the EEOC may file suit on behalf of charging parties in federal court.  Cases involving state and local government will be handled by the Department of Justice.  If the EEOC decides to drop the suit against an employer at any time, the charging party has ninety (90) days to file suit for themselves after receiving a “right to sue” notice from the EEOC.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964: Title VII

Under Title VII, discrimination of employees based on a number of items is deemed illegal.  The types of discrimination originally covered by Title VII include discrimination based on:

  • Race
  • Sexual orientation
  • Marital status
  • Disability
  • Age
  • Genetic information
  • Pregnancy
  • HIV/AIDS status
  • Gender
  • Nationality
  • Religious affiliation

If any of the aforementioned factors detrimentally affect an employment decision, including hiring, firing, promotions, dismissals, benefits, raises, promotions, workload, and virtually any other workplace action, the employer will be deemed in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

Am I Covered by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act?

If you are currently employed by or seeking employment at a company with fifteen or more employees, you are covered by the protections of Title VII from the employment discrimination act.  However, employees of the federal government are not covered by Title VII, but there are other anti-discrimination procedures in place.  In addition, independent contractors are not covered by the provisions of Title VII.

Racial Discrimination in the Workplace

Harassment, segregation, discrimination, and certain per-employment questions all violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  According to the law, harassment includes incidents such as slurs, derogatory statements, or other offensive behaviors occurs, including both physical and verbal altercations, predicated by an employee’s race.  Additionally, hostile workplaces due to racial harassment constitute violations of the Act as well.  Segregation or classification of employees, such as physical separation or shielding them from consumers, is also illegal.  Practices such as labeling, coding, or otherwise denoting an employee’s race on any document related to job placement is deemed segregation. 

Illegal pre-employment inquiries essentially cover any question ascertaining an applicant’s race or skin color.  Additionally, outright statements requesting specific races to apply or not to apply are also considered illegal pre-employment actions.  If an employer legitimately requires knowledge of an applicant’s race, that information cannot be provided to any party making the selection process for a given position.

National Origin Discrimination in the Workplace

No individual may be denied employment based on country of origin, birth location, cultural ancestry, or linguistic characteristics specific to a given ethnicity.  Instances where an accent may inhibit job performance are a difficult issue to ascertain, and in all cases, come down to the specific job function an applicant applied for and the level that a given accent would hinder their ability to perform a job function.  Additionally, some employment requirements for English speaking applicants only may violate anti-discrimination laws.  Again, if it is necessary for English to be spoken to conduct business, an employer may request applicants that speak English during business interactions.  However, workplace rules mandating specific languages being spoken when not interacting with peers or customers, such as during meal breaks, is illegal. 

Religious and Faith-Based Discrimination in the Workplace

Per Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and court precedents, religious and faith based discrimination in the workplace falls into three categories of illegal behavior, including disparate treatment discrimination, disparate impact discrimination, and hostile workplace environment discrimination.  Disparate treatment discrimination involves a clear instance of an employee being denied employment or promotion because of their religious affiliation, beliefs, or practices.  There are some instances of religious organizations requiring specific faiths for their workers, but these institutions are closely scrutinized to legitimately acquire the right to do so.  Disparate impact discrimination is less obvious than disparate treatment in that workplace rules do not actively deny employment due to religious beliefs, but rather, employers impose workplace rules and regulations that would force a person to choose their faith over remaining employed.  An example of this would be a workplace rules forbidding workers to wear any head coverings during their work hours, which may be directly contrary to their faith’s practices.  A hostile work environment is one that creates an insulting, abusive, threatening, or embarrassing workplace for individual employees based on their religious affiliation or beliefs, in the eyes of a reasonable person.

Employers have a reasonable duty to accommodate workers and their religious beliefs, such as observing a few religious holidays requiring not working each year.  However, a religious belief against certain parts of an occupation, such refusing to use electronics, which resulted in termination, is not religious discrimination.  Likewise, some safety and sanitation laws require certain clothing or safety items to be worn, which if not done so, jeopardize workers and consumers’ health.  If a religious clothing practice interferes with doing so, an employer may legally request an employee find another suitable occupation.

Sexual Orientation Discrimination in the Workplace

Existing federal laws do not acknowledge a gay or lesbian worker’s right to work in a private sector workplace void of discrimination due to their sexual orientation.  However, many states have enacted laws protected workers of all sexual orientations.  Likewise, other civil rights afforded workers may be violated by employers promoting an environment that marginalizes workers because of their orientation, such as gender discrimination, racial discrimination, and others.  Additionally, certain local laws protect workers’ rights to work in an environment free from discrimination based on their sexual orientation, and in many cases, large and small companies often have manuals prohibiting discrimination against other employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Stipulations of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act

Essentially, Title VII created the legal provisions preventing discrimination in the workplace, but in addition, created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to ensure the enforcement of these laws.  Persons affected by workplace discrimination should immediately file a complaint with the EEOC.  Complaints must be filed with the EEOC no more than 180 days after the discriminatory action last occurred.  Evidence and documentation to support discrimination are essential in presenting a credible claim, which your local EEOC office will investigate.  Additionally, each state and municipality has their own individual anti-discrimination laws, which may further protect workers in addition to the provisions of Title VII. 

For employees facing documented discrimination by an employer, there are a number of legal remedies available with the assistance of the EEOC, including:

  • Monetary damages, including compensatory and punitive
  • Injunctive relief against employers
  • Legal fees incurred by plaintiff
  • Reinstatement and promotion in their original workplace
  • Wage and other job related benefit losses reimbursed

Page 2: Enforcement and Compliance with the Civil Rights Act

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