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Unlawful Discrimination in the Workplace

by Steve McDonnell, studioD

In the 1960s, the federal government passed laws that protect individuals from discrimination by organizations with 15 or more employees. In 1990, the federal government passed a law that specifically protects disabled people. Companies that violate these laws can face substantial penalties. Most of these same laws also apply to the federal government as an employer, although the process for making a claim against the government may be different from making a claim against a private employer.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Title VII prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex or religion. A company cannot discriminate in any employment-related area such as recruiting, hiring, firing, compensation, promotions, training and benefits. Title VII also protects individuals from practices that have the effect of discriminating, such as testing that inherently disadvantages members of a protected class. The law prohibits harassment or the creation of a hostile work environment. It also protects individuals from retaliation if they raise an issue or file a discrimination claim.

Americans With Disabilities Act

Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, makes it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of a disability. It requires employers to provide a reasonable accommodation that enables a person with a disability to perform the essential functions of the job. Employers may not ask job applicants if they have a disability. However, they can ask about a candidate's ability to perform the essential functions of a job. Medical examinations must be job-related and required for every job applicant. Tests to check for illegal drugs are not considered medical examinations.

Equal Pay and Age Discrimination in Employment Acts

The Equal Pay Act requires that men and women who perform jobs for the same employer that require similar skills, effort and responsibility under similar working conditions be paid similarly and have similar benefits. Companies can explain differences in pay among employees for reasons such as performance, experience and seniority. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act prohibits discrimination against employees age 40 and older in employment-related areas such as hiring, firing, compensation and benefits. Job notices can only specify an age preference when it has proven to be a "bona fide occupational qualification."


If an employer is found guilty of unlawful discrimination in the workplace, the company may be required to hire, reinstate, promote or provide reasonable accommodation to an employee. An employer may be liable for back pay, attorneys' fees, court costs and compensatory and punitive damages if the court determines that the discrimination was intentional or if the employer's actions were malicious or reckless. Punitive damages do not apply to a federal, state or local government.

About the Author

Steve McDonnell's experience running businesses and launching companies complements his technical expertise in information, technology and human resources. He earned a degree in computer science from Dartmouth College, served on the WorldatWork editorial board, blogged for the Spotfire Business Intelligence blog and has published books and book chapters for International Human Resource Information Management and Westlaw.

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