Employment discrimination is illegal, right? Many people would likely say yes.
In reality, that is way too broad of a statement. In fact, an employer may generally discriminate amongst employees, and is probably even expected to regularly discriminate for reasons such as talent, charisma, attitude, etc. However, the right of employers to discriminate has been carved out by a myriad of local, state, and federal laws that have established protected characteristics for which an employer may not discriminate. The most notable of these anti-discrimination laws is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
What is Title VII?
Title VII is a federal law that generally protects individuals from employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The protection extends to essentially all employment related decisions including recruitment and hiring (i.e. before the individual actually becomes an employee). For example, an employer may be guilty of unlawful discrimination under Title VII if it only recruits individuals of a certain race for positions with the company. Importantly, under the “disparate impact” theory, an employer’s policy that effectively discriminates against a protected class is unlawful regardless of the employer’s intent. In other words, an employer may be liable under Title VII for unlawful discrimination even if the employer has no intent to discriminate.
Hostile Work Environment
Title VII’s protections extend to harassment and hostile work environments. An employer must take appropriate action to prevent a work environment where employees are subjected to offensive conduct based on a protected characteristic. The conduct must be both unwelcome and offensive to establish a hostile work environment claim. Examples of such conduct are severe sexual harassment and persistent racial or ethnic slurs.
Employers should also be aware of Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision. Title VII protects employees that oppose unlawful discrimination in the workplace or participate in any enforcement proceedings (e.g. filing a charge with the EEOC or assisting an agency investigation). This means that even where an employee’s initial discrimination claim may lack merit, the employer may still become liable under the statute for subsequent discriminatory action against the employee based on the allegations. The employee must show, though, that the employer’s actions were caused by his or her protected conduct (i.e. opposition of unlawful discrimination or participation in an enforcement proceeding).
Does Title VII Apply to My Business or My Employer’s Business?
Title VII generally only applies to companies with 15 or more employees. The statute notably applies to local, state, and federal governments. As mentioned before, Title VII is just one of many laws that protects individuals from employment discrimination. Many state and localities have similar statutes that apply more broadly. For example, the Arkansas Civil Rights Act generally applies to employers with more than 9 employees in the state.