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Know Your Rights: Workplace Discrimination Laws

By Gina Browne in Posted July 26th, 2017

Laws are in place to prohibit discrimination at the workplace, but many employees don’t realize what actually constitutes discrimination. Let’s uncover various forms of workplace discrimination and what to do if you’re a victim.

Boss Discriminating Against Employee

Workplace discrimination is reported among a large number of workers from across various ethnic, socioeconomic, age, and gender groups, as well as among those with diverse orientations and identities. Simply put, almost all workers experience some type of discrimination at some point in their careers – the trick is being able to effectively identify discriminatory behaviors or actions so you can better understand your rights. Let’s look at common workplace discrimination laws and concerns to ensure your rights are protected at all times.


Types of Discrimination

Discrimination comes in many forms. There is “disparate treatment” and “disparate impact” discrimination – meaning an employee is treated differently because they are a member of a “protected class.“ Disparate treatment” involves employer actions, e.g., promotion and termination, that single an employee because of a protected characteristic, e.g., only older workers are laid off or only males are promoted. “Disparate impact” involves employer policies that have a disproportionately adverse effect on a protected characteristic group, e.g., a company policy of counting all absences and leaves against seniority that has a disproportionate adverse impact on women who have to take time off for pregnancy.


Race or Ethnicity Discrimination

Both state and federal laws explicitly prohibit discrimination based on race or ethnicity. Race discrimination involves treating someone (an applicant or employee) unfavorably because he/she is of a certain race or because of personal characteristics associated with race (such as hair texture, skin color, or certain facial features).  Race/color discrimination also can involve treating someone unfavorably because the person is married to (or associated with) a person of a certain race or color.

This is one of the more blatant types of workplace discrimination, and unfortunately, one of the more common. According to a survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly one in three African American employees reports suffering from race-based discrimination at some point in their working careers – and one in four Hispanic workers claims the same. Interestingly, just 1 in 11 Caucasian workers report racial discrimination.

It is also unlawful to harass a person because of that person’s race or color. Harassment can include, for example, racial slurs, offensive or derogatory remarks about a person’s race or color, or the display of racially-offensive symbols. Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted). The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.

Worker Facing Racial Discrimination in the Workplace


Disability Discrimination

The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) protects people from discrimination based on disability. The laws also require employers to make reasonable accommodations so that people with disabilities can perform their jobs. In California, disabilities are broadly defined as conditions that limit a major life activity, including physical and mental disabilities, as well as medical conditions such as cancer or HIV/AIDS. California definitions and protections can be broader than protections under federal law. Disability discrimination occurs when an employer treats a qualified employee or applicant unfavorably because she has a disability. It is also unlawful to treat a qualified employee or applicant less favorably because of a history of disability, because of the employer’s belief that the individual may have a disability, or because of the individual’s relationship with a person with a disability. The law also requires an employer to provide reasonable accommodation to an employee or job applicant with a disability, unless doing so would cause significant difficulty or expense for the employer (“undue hardship”).  If you have a disability and feel you have been harassed or discriminated against by an employer, you can file a discrimination complaint. Call Feldman Browne Olivares to inquire.


Religious Discrimination

California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) has long prohibited employers from discriminating against applicants or employees on the basis of religious creed. “Religion” and “religious creed” are broadly construed to encompass virtually all aspects of religious belief or religious practices. The protections of the FEHA apply not only to more traditional, commonly recognized religions but also to less commonly observed belief systems as long as they are “sincerely held” by the employee.

“Religious creed,” “religious belief,” and “creed” include all aspects of religious belief, observance, and practice, including religious dress and grooming practices. The FEHA also requires employers to make reasonable accommodation for applicants’ or employees’ religious practices, unless doing so would cause an undue burden on the employer.


Age Discrimination

Discriminating on the basis of age in the workplace is illegal in the state of California under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and under the Federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). Employees forty years of age and older are protected by age discrimination laws. It is not illegal to discriminate against someone who is “too young” for a position, and anti–age discrimination laws do not protect anyone under 40. The purpose of age discrimination laws is to protect workers from discrimination on the basis of being too old.


Sex Discrimination Harassment

Another overt discriminatory practice in the workplace is sex discrimination harassment. It is unlawful to harass a person because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.  Both victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex.

Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).

Woman Being Sexually Harassed at Work


What to Do if You Are a Victim of Discrimination

If you feel you’ve been discriminated against at work, make sure you first address the concern and make your voice heard. This may mean talking to a supervisor or representative from your human resources department, or going further up the ladder, if necessary. You should always document your complaints of discrimination and keep copies of the company’s response, if any, to your complaints. You may want to consider filing a formal grievance or complaint with your company or the Department of Fair Employment and Housing.  Finally, consult with an attorney early on in the process to ensure you’re taking all necessary steps and precautions to stop discrimination in the workplace right away.

July 26, 2017