Employment discrimination can be based on many different personal attributes. It may be clear to you that you are being treated differently than your coworkers because you are an immigrant from Pakistan, a Muslim woman, or a gay man. However, you may not be sure which actions by your superiors or coworkers legally constitute discrimination, particularly when it is subtle. If you believe you are the victim of employment discrimination, talk with an experienced employment law attorney as soon as you can.

Defining employment discrimination

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To discriminate against someone is to treat that person differently and usually less favorably because of a certain characteristic of that person.

“Employment discrimination occurs any time an employer makes decisions about a person’s employment based on invalid, non-job-performance criteria,” says Steven M. Warshawsky, the founder and principal of the Warshawsky Law Firm.

Protected personal characteristics You may be discriminated against at work because of your sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, color, nation of origin, religion, age, disability, and pregnancy. Which attributes are protected depend on federal and your state’s laws.

“In our practice, we find the most common form of employment discrimination to be pregnancy discrimination and the claims that emerge from pregnancy discrimination relating for family leave policies,” says Tammy L. Riddle, Esq., Member of Hurwitz & Fine, P.C. “Employers still treat pregnant women unfavorably based on their pregnancy status in many aspects of employment including pay and job opportunities and leaves after the baby is born.”

Forms of employment discrimination

What does employment discrimination really look like?

You may have a claim if you were negatively impacted by one of these employment discrimination practices:

  • Job advertisements that show a preference based on a protected attribute, like sex, race, or age.
  • Hiring practices that favor certain individuals over others based on a protected attribute. It is also unlawful for an employer to refuse to hire someone based on a personal characteristic.
  • Improper questions, such as asking about your genetic information, medical history, and whether or not you have or intend to have children. These often take place during the interview process.
  • Harassment by coworkers, managers, or anyone else in the workplace, which you must endure as a condition of your employment or becomes so severe and pervasive that it creates a hostile, abusive, or intimidating work environment.
  • Sexual harassment by anyone at the workplace, which either creates a hostile work environment or is one severe instance, such as sexual assault or a quid pro quo suggestion.
  • Denial of reasonable accommodations you need at work, such as wearing a religious headscarf with your uniform or needing a day off for a religious day.
  • Lower pay and fewer benefits based on a personal characteristic. “Not paying a female employee the same rate of pay for the exact same position with the same responsibilities that a male employee or ‘comparator’ is paid could constitute discrimination on the basis of equal pay or pay equity,” says Riddle.
  • Job assignments based on a personal characteristic, such as assigning you to a position away from clients or customers because of a personal attribute, like your race, color, or religion.
  • Fewer or no promotions because of a personal characteristic. “For example, refusing to consider a female associate for a promotion to sales manager because she has young children and the position requires travel or work on weekends or nights,” Riddle says. “The assumption that the employee would not want to travel because she is a mother with young children would constitute employment discrimination based on sex.”
  • Any unfair treatment during any stage of the employment process, including but not limited to recruitment, interviewing, contract negotiations, employment conditions, compensation, training, mentorship, and promotions because of a protected personal characteristic.
  • Retaliation for filing a complaint about discrimination with a supervisor, human resources, a state agency, or the EEOC.

What makes employment discrimination illegal?

Warshawsky points out that “employment discrimination is a creature of statutes at the federal, state, and local level. Different statutes will prohibit different kinds of discrimination. They don’t all prohibit the same kinds; some prohibit more, and some prohibit less. Some define the categories differently.”

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which is the federal law that protects you from various forms of employment discrimination. A majority of states have their own statutes that protect against employment discrimination based on certain criteria. Some state statutes protect a broader range of characteristics than Title VII while others protect against less. Additionally, some highly populated counties and cities have regulations protecting employees from discrimination.

Whether you are entitled to file a complaint to the EEOC or your state’s employment agency or both, or whether you can file a valid lawsuit, depends on whether the discriminatory conduct is prohibited by federal, state, or local law.

If you are experiencing any of the issues discussed above, contact a local employment attorney right away to discuss your options.