Ever find yourself thinking: “They can’t treat me that way just because I’m black/white/Hispanic/a woman/a man/older/differently abled? There oughta be a law.”
Good news: There is a law. In fact, there are several federal laws, and most states also have anti-discrimination laws. Bottom line: You can’t be treated differently at work because of who you are, where you pray, or whether you have a disability.
What does “treated differently” mean? An employer generally may NOT consider your race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, genetic information, or your age (if you are over 40) when it comes to making decisions related to your employment.
- hiring and firing;
- pay and benefits;
- job assignments;
- transfers and promotions;
- training and apprenticeship programs; and
- other terms and conditions of employment.
After decades of advocacy by unions, civil rights, women’s and disability rights organizations, federal law is fairly comprehensive.
So, for example, if all the men in your workplace get regular pay raises and promotions, but the women never do, the women may be victims of illegal discrimination.
Note: There is no federal law against employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia do offer such protection; 29 states do not.
What to do if you are believe you are a victim of discrimination
- Write it down and keep records: Take notes about any workplace incidents or comments that you feel are evidence of discrimination. Save copies of pay stubs, job postings, discipline notices, or any other documents that might be relevant. Put a date on your notes and keep a copy at home.
- Talk to other employees: If you’re being cheated out of pay raises, promotions, or anything else you deserve at work, is the same thing happening to others like you? As with almost any workplace problem, your boss will pay more attention and your legal case will be stronger when you act together with your co-workers.
- Tell your boss: Take your concerns to someone in authority in your workplace. If your supervisor is part of the problem, go over that person’s head, or go to your workplace’s human resources department. (Note: In most circumstances involving harassment, filing an internal complaint is required before going to a government agency or filing a lawsuit, so don’t skip this step.)
- Contact a government agency: If talking to your boss doesn’t work, you can file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and/or with a similar agency in the state where you live. (See this directory of EEOC districts and offices to find the one nearest you.) The agency will take the case up with your employer and may be able to obtain records – about hiring or promotion decisions, for example – that are not available to you.
- Contact an attorney: You can file your own lawsuit if internal complaints and/or a government agency have not resolved the problem. In most cases, however, you must first file a complaint with the EEOC or a state agency. You should be aware that almost all federal and state laws prohibiting discrimination allow very short time periods for filing a lawsuit. If you wait too long, you probably will not be allowed to file a suit.
Article: “Federal Laws Prohibiting Job Discrimination: Questions and Answers,” U.S. EEOC
Article: “Employment Discrimination: An Overview,” Cornell University Legal Information Institute
Multiple articles at “Your Rights Against Workplace Discrimination and Harassment,” at Nolo.com
Government agency: U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, directory of districts and offices, at eeoc.gov
The basic federal laws banning discrimination include:
- Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: Prohibits discrimination and harassment based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
- Equal Pay Act: Requires equal pay for “substantially” equal work, regardless of gender.
- Age Discrimination in Employment Act: Protects individuals 40 years of age or older.
- Sections 501 and 505 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973: Prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities who work in the federal government.
- Title I and Title V of the Americans with Disabilities Act: Prohibits employment discrimination against individuals with disabilities1.
- Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008: Prohibits employment discrimination based on genetic information.
In addition to the protections against discrimination contained in each of these laws, each of the listed statutes also prohibits an employer from retaliating against you for making a complaint about discrimination.
1According to the U.S. EEOC, “An individual with a disability under the ADA is a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, has a record of such impairment, or is regarded as having a disability.”