AuthorLawrence Kleiman, Tim Barnett

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Discrimination, in an employment context, can be generally defined as treating an individual or group less well in recruiting, hiring, or any other terms and conditions of employment due to the person's or group's race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, disability, or veteran's status. These categories are referred to as protected classifications because they are singled out for protection by equal employment opportunity (EEO) laws. Subcategories of people within each protected classification are referred to as protected groups. For example, male and female are the protected groups within the protected classification of sex. EEO legislation affords protection from illegal discrimination to all protected groups within a protected classification, not just the minority group. Thus, employment discrimination against a man is just as unlawful as that aimed at a woman. The lone exception to this rule concerns the use of affirmative action programs (discussed later), which, under certain circumstances, allow employers to treat members of certain protected groups preferentially.

In the U.S., effective federal legislation banning employment-related discrimination did not exist until

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the 1960s, when Congress passed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (1964). In the years since, several other important federal laws have been passed. In addition to the myriad federal laws banning discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, disability, and veteran's status, almost all states have anti-discrimination laws affecting the workplace. Most of these laws extend the protections in federal law to employers that are not covered by the federal statutes because of their size (Title VII for example, applies only to employers with 15 or more employees). Some state laws also attempt to prevent discrimination against individuals and groups that are not included in federal law. For example, approximately 14 states have passed statutes protecting all workers in the states from employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and several others states prohibit public sector employers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.


Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (CRA), passed in 1964, covers organizations that employ 15 or more workers for at least 20 weeks during the year. Specifically, the law states: "It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to fail or refuse to hire or discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." Interpretations of Title VII by courts have clarified the specific meaning of the prohibitions against discrimination. In general, it is safe to say that virtually any workplace decision involving personnel is subject to legal challenge on the basis of Title VII, including not only decisions made relative to recruiting and hiring, but also in relation to promotion, discipline, admission to training programs, layoffs, and performance appraisal. Harassment of applicants or employees because of their membership in a protected classification is also considered a violation of Title VII.

Title VII is probably the most valuable tool that employees have for remedying workplace discrimination because it covers the greatest number of protected classifications. If a court determines that discrimination has occurred, this law entitles the victim to relief in the form of legal costs and back pay (i.e., the salary the person would have been receiving had no discrimination occurred). For instance, suppose a woman sues a company for rejecting her application for a $35,000 per year construction job because the company unlawfully excludes women from this job. The litigation process takes two years and, ultimately, the court rules in the applicant's favor. To remedy this discrimination, the court could require the company to pay her legal fees and grant her $70,000 in back pay (two years' salary).

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has had an enormous impact on the human resource management (HRM) practices of many companies, by forcing them to take a close look at the way they recruit, hire, promote, award pay raises, and discipline their employees. As a result of this self-scrutiny, many firms have changed their practices, making them more systematic and objective. For instance, most firms now require their supervisors to provide detailed documentation to justify the fairness of their disciplinary actions, and many firms are now more cautious with regard to their use of employment tests that restrict the employment opportunities for certain protected groups.

A number of Supreme Court decisions in the mid- to late 1980s made discrimination claims under Title VII more difficult for employees to substantiate. To put more teeth into the law, Congress amended it by enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1991. This 1991 amendment expanded the list of remedies that may be awarded in a discrimination case-the employer now has more to lose if found guilty of discrimination. In addition to legal fees and back pay, an employer may now be charged with punitive and compensatory damages (for future financial losses, emotional pain, suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish, and loss of enjoyment of life). The cap for these damages ranges from $50,000 to $300,000...

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