Far too many people are treated unfairly at work every day. Many employees have asked some version of this question at some point:
Is this discrimination?
The short answer is "it depends on the reason." Unfortunately, there are many kinds of unfair treatment in the workplace that are, while certainly not good management practices, not illegal either. General favoritism and arbitrary decision-making are frustrating for employees but not in themselves legally actionable. To count as illegal workplace discrimination, you have to be treated unfairly for a protected reason.
What are the protected classes?
Both federal law and Utah state law prohibit discrimination on the basis of:
- Race, color, or national origin
- Age (over 40)
- Sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation
- Pregnancy, childbirth, or pregnancy-related conditions
Utah law also prohibits discrimination on the basis of reasonable expressions of religious or moral beliefs in the workplace as well as religious, personal, or political beliefs outside the workplace.
One common misconception is that certain employees (e.g. women and people of color) are "in a protected class" and others are not. For most of the protected classes listed above, every employee has the same protections. For instance, it's illegal to discriminate against women on the basis of sex. It is just as illegal to discriminate against men on the basis of sex. The one exception is age discrimination. The law only protects workers over 40 from discrimination on the basis of age.
The law also makes exceptions for jobs where membership is in a protected class is a bona fide requirement for the job. For instance, a theater company can limit its applicant pool to men if it's trying to find someone to play the role of a male character. Churches are permitted to require that their clergy be members of their religious denomination. However, for most jobs and in most workplaces, you can't treat employees differently on the basis of a protected category.
What counts as work discrimination?
Discrimination in the workplace takes many forms. The general standard is treating employees differently, in a manner that affects their employment, on the basis of a protected class. Some fairly blatant examples include:
- Allowing membership in a protected class to influence hiring or promotion decisions (e.g. promoting a less qualified man over a more qualified woman).
- Compensating employees differently (whether in terms of base pay, benefits, bonuses, commissions, or paid time off) based on protected classes.
- Making accommodations for members of one religious group but not making similarly reasonable accommodations for another religious group.
- Refusing to hire people who are or may become pregnant in order to avoid maternity leave.
However, some instances of discrimination are more subtle. Consider a manager who frequently has private meetings with male employees but refuses to meet privately with female employees. This constitutes illegal discrimination because the female employees are denied a meaningful opportunity in the workplace (access to the manager) on the basis of their sex.
How can a discrimination lawyer help me?
In order to win a discrimination case, you have to prove that you were treated differently on the basis of a protected class. Employers often try to come up with a pretextual justification for their actions to avoid getting in legal trouble for discrimination. For instance, an employer may fire someone and claim that it was on the basis of performance when the actual reason was a protected category.
An attorney can help you gather information (such as performance reviews and witness testimony) to prove your case for discrimination. A lawyer can advocate for your legal rights in the workplace, and pursue a positive resolution. A resolution may involve getting you reinstated if you were fired, recovering back pay if you were underpaid, or negotiating severance if it's time to move on. It all depends on your circumstances and the extent of the discrimination,
We specialize in employment law. If you have reason to believe you've been discriminated against in the workplace, we'd be happy to speak with you. We offer free and confidential consultations and can go over your legal rights and options. Contact us today to speak with a Utah workplace discrimination lawyer.