What is discrimination?

Civil rights laws protect individuals from being treated differently based on their inclusion in a protected category. Categories protected by law include, race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, mental or physical disability, age, genetic information, marital status, parenthood, pregnancy and veteran status.

The laws also make it illegal to fire, demote, harass or otherwise retaliate against individuals because they filed a charge of discrimination, complained to their employer or other entity about discrimination, or participated in discrimination proceedings (such as an investigation or lawsuit).

Federal laws enforced by the U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the U.S. Department of Labor protect individuals from discrimination, including job termination, demotion, harassment or provision of inequitable pay, on the following bases:

a professor in a wheelchair looks on as two students work out an equation on a whiteboard

Age discrimination involves treating someone less favorably because of his or her age. People who are 40 or older are protected.

Color discrimination involves treating someone unfavorably because of skin color or complexion.

Disability discrimination involves treating a person unfavorably because of his or her disability.

Discrimination based on gender identity involves, for example, denying employment to people because they are transgender, firing someone who has made a gender transition, denying access to a common restroom corresponding to a person’s self-identified gender, or harassing someone by using a name or gender pronoun that doesn’t reflect that person’s identity.

Questions about marital status may violate Title VII of the Americans with Disabilities Act if used to deny or limit employment opportunities. Even if asked of both men and women, such questions may be seen as evidence of intent to discriminate.

National origin discrimination involves treating individuals unfavorably because they are from a particular country or part of the world, because of ethnicity or accent, or because they appear to be of a certain ethnic background (even if they are not).

Asking job applicants if they have children could be evidence of discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Also, discrimination against a worker simply because he or she has caregiving responsibilities constitutes unlawful disparate treatment under Title VII. However, employment decisions that are based on an employee’s actual work performance, rather than assumptions or stereotypes, do not generally violate Title VII, even if an employee’s unsatisfactory work performance is attributable to caregiving responsibilities.
Pregnancy discrimination involves treating a woman (an applicant or employee) unfavorably because of pregnancy, childbirth, or a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth.
Race discrimination involves treating someone unfavorably because he or she is of a certain race or because of personal characteristics associated with race (such as hair texture, skin color or certain facial features).

Religious discrimination involves treating a person unfavorably because of his or her religious beliefs. The law protects not only people who belong to traditional, organized religions, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam or Judaism, but also others who have sincerely held religious, ethical or moral beliefs.

Sex discrimination involves treating a person unfavorably because of that person's sex.

Discrimination based on sexual orientation involves, for example, denying employees promotions because they are gay or straight, denying health benefits to same-sex spouses or making derogatory remarks about a person’s sexual orientation.

Discrimination against veterans involves denying them employment because of their past military service, current military obligations or intent to serve in the future. Federal contractors must offer affirmative action to employ veterans.