Workplace discrimination due to the intolerance of other people’s religion, color, race, and national origin is a problem that has always plagued America. It’s a very interesting topic, especially since the population of the US is so diverse.
One would think that the intolerance of others due to race, religion, or color is a thing of the past, when quite the opposite is true based on the number of charges filed at the EEOC:
Laws against workplace discrimination and harassment due to nationality, race, color, religion
There are federal and state laws that make it illegal to discriminate against employees or harass them on the basis of their skin color, race, national origin, or religion. This included all types of employment decisions, including hiring, firing, promotions, benefits, etc.
The main laws that protect employees against discrimination are:
- At federal level, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) is the main law that deals with discrimination at the workplace. It comprehensively prohibits all types of workplace discrimination due to race, color, religion, or national origin. Title VII applies to private employers with at least 15 employees.
- Also, Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (Section 1981) is a long standing piece of legislation which affirms that all citizens are protected by law from discrimination on the basis of race, color and ethnicity. Originally, the act was meant to protect the civil rights of black people in the USA after the Civil War.
- State laws have also been passed in most states, that protect certain groups from discrimination at work. Some of these local laws lower the minimum number of employees required for the law to take effect substantially.
The law also protects spouses of protected groups against discrimination. For example, a white woman can’t be fired because she married an African-American man.
Race discrimination at the workplace
Race discrimination occurs when employees (or job applicants) of a given race are treated differently. Employers may not make employment related decisions based on race. This type of discrimination is called disparate treatment. An example would be where a company only promotes white employees into managerial positions.
It is also illegal to adopt company policies that appear to be neutral, but disproportionately impact a particular race. This is called disparate impact discrimination. An example of this type of discrimination would be setting a taller minimum height requirement for a job that doesn’t warrant it, since this discriminates against Asians.
Color discrimination at the workplace
Color discrimination is defined as discriminating based on skin color complexion (shade, pigment, lightness, darkness).
Based on Title VII, employer discrimination based on skin color is illegal.
Racial and color discrimination often go hand-in-hand, but not always, since people of the same race may have different skin color. For example, let’s suppose there is a service company where lighter skin African-Americans are allowed to work in jobs involving customer interaction, while darker skin African-Americans can only work in storage jobs at the company.
Discriminating against national origin
Title VII makes it illegal for an employer to discriminate against someone’s birthplace, country of origin, heritage, last name, or language.
Special rules apply to the use of language at the workplace. An employer may demand that the employee be fluent in English, so as he/she can effectively communicate with customers for example. However, the employer cannot restrict what languages employees speak among each other, during a break for example.
Discrimination against religion
Religious discrimination occurs when an employee is treated unfavorably because of his/her religious beliefs. The EEOC is in charge of enforcing the laws against religious discrimination as well.
The law also requires the employer to reasonably accommodate the religious beliefs and practices of an employee, if it does not cause more than a minimal burden on business operations.
Reasonable accommodation applies to flexible work scheduling, job reassignments and adjustment to work environment, as well as to dressing and grooming practices that an employee has for religious reasons.
All accommodations must be specifically requested from the employer, and must be granted if it does not pose undue hardship on the employer.
Harassment at the workplace
It is also illegal to harass protected groups on the basis of their race, color, etc. Harassment is defined as any form of unwelcome conduct that creates an offensive or hostile work environment.
Some examples of harassment are:
- general jokes about a particular race
- racial slurs
- physical acts of harassment
Harassment isn’t a straight forward issue. Some types of harassment are more serious than others. The EEOC says that courts weigh harassment charges on the basis of:
- frequency of the harassment
- severity of the harassment
- whether the harassment was physically threatening or humiliating
- whether the harassment interfered with work
- the general context of the harassment
Generally speaking, the more serious and frequent the harassment is, the more likely it is to be illegal.
How to prove discriminatory employment practices?
Proving that the employer is discriminating against protected groups is not easy. Everybody knows that all forms of discrimination are illegal, no employer will ever admit to discrimination, and they will always find a legitimate reason for their employment practices.
This is where circumstantial evidence comes into play.
Proving discrimination with circumstantial evidence comes in many forms. It usually involves proving that given a similar situation, the employer treated a subset of people differently, than most other people.
Examples of this would be:
- 2 white workers and an Asian worker are consistently late to work. Their job performance and evaluation reports are the same. The Asian worker gets fired for being late so often, but the white workers do not.
- An African-American employee is fired shortly after making a complaint about being harassed due to his/her race.
- White job applicants are not required to submit drug tests, while black and Latino applicants are.
Damages available in race, color and nationality discrimination claims
If the claim is won, the following money damages may be awarded to the employee:
- Back pay
- Front pay
- Damages for emotional distress
- Punitive damages
- Out of pocket costs for expenses incurred due to the wrongful termination
- Attorney’s fees and court filing costs
Under Title VII, the maximum amount of combined damages is capped at $300,000. Under Section 1981, there is no upper cap to the amount of damages that can be awarded.
The court may also order the employer to reinstate the wrongfully discharged employee into his old position.
If you would like to read the details on real race/color discrimination cases, have a look at the EEOC website’s relevant case list.
What to do if you were wrongfully discharged because of discrimination (race, color, nationality, religion)?
If you feel you were discriminated against and fired, you must take action as soon as possible. Title VII sets a strict 180 day deadline to file the charge at the EEOC, starting from the day the discrimination took place.
Please read our guide on how to file a wrongful termination claim here.