At its core, discrimination simply means treating someone differently because of who they are. In the workplace, discrimination may come in many forms—being passed over for promotions, getting unfairly demoted or scrutinized, experiencing less desirable assignments or working conditions, or receiving substantially less pay for the same or similar work. Discrimination can be directed at individuals (e.g., a manager uses racially offensive language while talking about a minority employee), or it can be systemic (e.g., no woman has ever been promoted to regional manager).
But not all unfairness in the workplace is discrimination. The law generally does not prevent your boss from being a jerk. Yelling, inflexible scheduling, unjustified discipline, and the like may be reasons to look for a new job. But those behaviors are not necessarily discrimination. Instead, the unfair treatment must be because of a person’s “protected status,” which may include:
- Sex or gender
- Marital status
- Sexual orientation
- National origin
- Honorably discharged veteran or military status
- Disability, including the presence of any sensory, mental, or physical impairment
- Use of a trained dog guide or service animal
The law generally prohibits an employer from refusing to hire, discharging, discriminating in terms of compensation or conditions of employment, or making pre-employment inquiries that tend to discriminate based on these protected classifications. In addition, employers cannot retaliate against a person for opposing what he or she believes in good faith to be discriminatory conduct by the employer.
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