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What types of workplace discrimination are unlawful?

People in the United States of America are broadly entitled to pursue employment opportunities based on their ability and personal investment, not on immutable characteristics. The American Dream tells people that they can accomplish anything with enough effort and time. Thankfully, there are laws to help make that dream more achievable for people of all backgrounds.

There are federal laws that seek to curtail discrimination that targets individuals for characteristics over which they have limited or no control. These federal laws protect workers, students and consumers against unfair discrimination. Workers have protections in a vast array of circumstances, including when seeking a job or when the company that hired them begins downsizing.

Despite these laws, employers frequently consider factors that should be irrelevant when deciding who they hire, who they promote or who they terminate. Those who are aware of which personal characteristics are protected under federal law may have an easier time recognizing discrimination when it occurs and holding their employers accountable accordingly.

What characteristics should employers never consider?

Work performance, disciplinary records and even attendance history can impact what decisions a company makes about its staff members. Characteristics protected by federal law should not. If employers consider protected characteristics when making job-related decisions, that could constitute discrimination. So could overlooking harassment targeting people for those protected characteristics.

The current characteristics that benefit from protection at the federal level include:

  • Race or skin color
  • National origin or ethnicity
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • Disability
  • Marital status
  • Political affiliation
  • Age of 40 or older
  • Genetic information
  • Sexual orientation
  • Gender identity

Many of these forms of discrimination take on a variety of different forms. Sex-based discrimination rules protect women from discrimination based on pregnancy and lactation, for example, as well as from sexual harassment. Discrimination based on medical ability can involve both refusing to hire those with disabilities and refusing to accommodate those who develop medical conditions during their employment.

Workers often need to document what they have experienced to show that factors protected by law influenced a company’s decisions about their employment. Recognizing when a company has violated anti-discrimination rules can inspire workers to seek legal guidance in order to learn more about their rights and options under the law.