What is discrimination?

What we may call discrimination in everyday conversation isn't necessarily what is meant by discrimination in a legal sense. In general, discrimination occurs when an employer acts against an employee because of his or her race, age, gender, religion, national origin, disability, veteran status, or some other kind of status which is protected under the law (whistleblowers, for example). The courts refer to these categories as "protected classes".

Not everything an employer may do based upon an employee's protected class status results in potential legal claim for discrimination, however. A claim of discrimination requires an important decision that has a real impact on the employee--such as hiring or promoting a less-qualified employee, firing, demoting, or paying at a lower rate - or a long-term pattern of mistreatment which is serious enough to have an impact on any employee's ability to work.

Many times workers will ask, "how could I possibly know that that boss fired me because of my status?" It is sometimes very difficult to know what the employer's real motivation was. After all, the employee may not know what information his boss has available, the true financial picture of the company, how other employees have been treated, or other factors which may lead to some decision. The employee must be a bit of a detective - not in the sense of rifling through his boss' desk drawers, but in the sense of being observant to uncover clues which can show why an action is being taken.

There are many kinds of evidence which can be used in court to show discrimination. For example,

  • Comments by a supervisor demonstrating a bias against people based upon age, race, or other protected class
  • Paying different wages to employees in the same job
  • Unfair treatment of employees in enforcing work rules
  • A general work environment where certain kinds of employees receive poor treatment
  • Giving false reasons for employment decisions

It often happens that an employee works in a store or office where he or she is daily subject to terrible behavior by supervisors or owners. In some situations employees are ridiculed, cursed at, assigned impossible tasks, and treated unfairly on a regular basis by managers, but other employees across the spectrum of ages, races, etc. suffer the same treatment. This kind of "equal opportunity mismanagement" may be the basis for other claims, but not discrimination. As courts often state, the laws against discrimination are not a "general civility code."

The real key to proving a discrimination claim is showing that an employer made decisions for the wrong reasons - because of a bias against employees of a certain type. Most employers won't admit "I discriminated against you based on age," for example, but an employee can show discrimination is at work by proving enough other factors that point to that result.