Employment discrimination occurs when an individual receives unequal treatment in an employment situation based on a trait unrelated to the performance of their job, such as race, gender, national origin, religion, disability, or sexual orientation. This section offers in-depth information on discrimination in the workplace, and the federal laws that prohibit it. It’s important to learn about these laws so you can protect yourself and your career. Below you will find links to key federal laws and U.S. Supreme Court decisions on employment discrimination. You will also find information on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, which is the agency charged with enforcing employment discrimination laws.
Federal Employment Discrimination Laws: Overview
There are a number of often-overlapping federal laws prohibiting various types of discrimination in the workplace. While many states offer additional workplace protections (for instance, some states have encoded LGBT workers as a protected class), all states are subject to federal laws. However, keep in mind that many of these laws have limits -- many of them only protect workers who have been with the employer for a certain amount of time or who work in companies with a certain number of employees. Key federal anti-discrimination laws that apply to the workplace include the following:
- Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)
- Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
- Civil Rights Act of 1964: Title VII (under which the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission was formed)
- Civil Rights Act of 1991 (Intentional Employment Discrimination)
- Equal Pay Act of 1963
- Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
- Pregnancy Discrimination Act
Workplace Discrimination: Key U.S. Supreme Court Cases
Many of our laws are prompted, influenced, or otherwise shaped by decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court, including employment discrimination laws. Some of the key Court opinions affecting workplace discrimination law include the following:
- Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1971) - Prohibited educational requirements for job applicants that did not relate to job performance but excluded certain minorities
- Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson (1986) - Court decided that "hostile environment" sexual harassment is a form of sexual discrimination
- Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Serv., Inc. (1987) - Court ruled that plaintiffs may file claims of same-sex sexual harassment
- Faragher v. City of Boca Raton (1998) - Court ruled that employers may be liable for sexual discrimination caused by supervisor, but is based on the reasonableness of the employer's and plaintiff's conduct
How to File a Workplace Discrimination Claim
If you believe your employment rights were violated, you may file a charge with the EEOC or have the agency file a charge on your behalf. A charge differs from a legal claim. The EEOC will contact your employer within 10 days of the filing of the charge, and then will investigate the charge. Depending on the results of its investigation, the agency may work out a settlement or sue your employer; or, if it decides not to sue, it will send you a "Notice of Right to Sue." This means you may file a civil claim if you still believe your case has merit.
The EEOC, which does not process discrimination charges online, will ask you for certain information when you contact or visit the office. These include:
- Your name, address, telephone number
- Name, address, telephone number of your employer (and number of employees)
- Brief explanation of your situation (the discrimination charge)
- Date of the alleged violation
And if you are a federal employee (or federal job applicant), the process is a little different.
Discrimination in the workplace is a serious problem that impacts productivity and quality of life, while exposing employers to costly liability. Click on a link below for more details about employment discrimination.