Employment Discrimination: Definition and Laws

Employment Discrimination: Definition and Laws
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  • 0:05 Mistreated at Work
  • 1:53 Employment Discrimination
  • 3:59 Title VII Of The Civil…
  • 6:44 Bona Fide Occupational…
  • 8:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

Employment discrimination occurs when a job applicant or employee is mistreated based on his or her race, national origin, gender, disability, religion, or age. This lesson defines employment discrimination and looks at Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Mistreated at Work

Gloria Parks was 54 when she was fired from her job of 30 years. Parks worked as a medical assistant at a Cleveland, Ohio, hospital. She was terminated after a patient identification mishap involving Parks and a younger co-worker.

Two patients with identical names checked in to get blood drawn on the same morning. The hospital accused Parks of failing to follow the proper patient identification policy, but co-workers testified that the policy wasn't enforced in the department. The co-workers said it was a younger co-worker who checked the patient in that day, pulled the wrong medical chart, and then passed the chart off to Parks.

The identification mistake was corrected before the patient left Parks' department and the blood work for each patient was properly processed. Neither patient was harmed. After the mishap, the department changed its procedures to require proof of identification at check in.

However, Parks' supervisor had already fired her. Since his assignment to the department, this supervisor treated Parks differently than her younger co-workers and seized this opportunity to fire her, though the younger co-worker was allowed to keep her job and wasn't disciplined. And though the patient complained, it was against a third employee who had upset the patient. This employee was the department nurse, who was also younger than Parks. She kept her job and also wasn't disciplined.

Employment Discrimination

After hearing evidence on this incident and an overall pattern of mistreatment, the jury found Parks' case was employment discrimination based on age. The jury awarded Parks $900,000 in damages. Employment discrimination laws seek to prevent the mistreatment of job applicants and employees based on race, color, sex, religion, national origin, physical disability, age, and other unlawful classifications.

In general, employment discrimination laws cover unfair practices in several different areas of employment, including:

  • Hiring
  • Promoting
  • Assigning tasks
  • Training
  • Compensating, and
  • Firing

There are many different ways employment discrimination can occur, and in many different areas of employment. Discrimination obviously includes outright mistreatment of an employee, but it can include treating other employees or job applicants better than a particular employee, too. It can also occur when the employment practices merely perpetuate previous or ongoing discrimination.

There are many different employment discrimination laws designed to address the various practices. For example, Parks' case was filed in state court. Ohio, like most other states, has statutes that prohibit employment discrimination. Parks' case specifically alleged that the hospital violated the state law prohibiting her termination based on age.

However, many employment discrimination cases are federal cases. This means the cases are filed in federal courts using federal laws. The most used federal law prohibiting employment discrimination is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Let's take a look at Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This is a federal law that prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

Title VII is limited to these five categories of employment discrimination, though other types of discrimination are also covered under federal law. For example, age discrimination is covered under the 'Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and discrimination based on physical disability is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Though there are many laws regarding employment discrimination, Title VII is widely considered to be the most important law on employment discrimination. This is because it put a formal and detailed complaints process into place and set harsh legal penalties for employment discrimination.

Both the complaints process and the penalty process are governed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC is a federal administrative agency that investigates, reconciles, and litigates complaints filed by existing and prospective employees against employers. As with other administrative agency proceedings, parties can appeal EEOC decisions by taking the case into the federal court system.

Title VII applies to all employment agencies, including unions, and any business or labor organization that affects interstate commerce and has at least 15 workers or members. Remember that 'affecting interstate commerce' simply means that the business is involved in commercial trade that eventually results in the transportation of goods or money between states.

If the EEOC finds that an employer has violated Title VII, it can order penalties such as:

  • Back pay for the employee
  • Payment of the employee's attorney's fees
  • Reinstating the employee
  • Retroactive granting of seniority for the employee, and
  • Retroactive pension benefits to the employee

Penalties can include compensatory, punitive, and sometimes even liquidated damages, though there are caps on damage awards based on the number of employees the business employs. The damage award can also depend on the type of discrimination, and whether or not the discrimination was committed intentionally or recklessly.

Bona Fide Occupational Qualification

Now let's look at the one recognized exception to discrimination under Title VII. This legal defense is known as a bona fide occupational qualification, or BFOQ.

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