Understanding the Laws of Workplace Discrimination

Workplace discrimination is among the most insidious threats to American workers. A competent employee who does his job can find himself unemployed (or even unemployable) because of discriminatory employers, who dislike him for reasons unrelated to his ability or willingness to do his job fully and completely. Most countries, the United States among them, respond to this threat by creating protected categories of workers. Employers may not hire or fire based on membership in one of these categories.

Broadly speaking, the categories are race, skin color, ethnicity, national origin, sex, gender, sexual orientation, pregnancy, religion, creed, political views and affiliations, language abilities, residency status and citizenship, medical state and physical condition, age, gender identity, marital status, military veteran status, military discharge status or anticipated deployment, and use (or abuse, some might say) of tobacco products. In some jurisdictions, discrimination based on height, weight, socioeconomic class or other similar factors is also forbidden.

Discriminatory policies are bad for companies for a number of reasons. First and foremost is inefficiency. When a more competent member of a group subject to discrimination is not chosen, and instead a less competent member of the favored group is chosen, the company shells out the same amount of money for lower quality workers. The result is waste, and a “market failure.” Because companies do not always act in their own best interest, it is the government’s responsibility to step in and help the economy towards efficiency.

Discriminatory policies are also bad for a company’s reputation, as it can develop a reputation as a bad place to work, and a bad company to buy from. This can lead to boycotts of its products, and its status as a perennial target of community members who have been discriminated against.

One of the goals of workplace discrimination laws is to encourage the formation of a middle class of groups that were once discriminated against, and to thereby integrate these formerly marginalized groups into the society they live in. This reduces social tensions and the potential for rioting and unrest in the streets.

Another variety of discrimination is “unintentional discrimination,” which occurs when employers favor particular features because they are good for business. Hooters, the restaurant, places a premium on the attractiveness of its female employees (though men who filed a lawsuit because they could not get cooking jobs at Hooters, a job which after all requires no employee contact, won in court), and is therefore allowed to discriminated against men and women deemed unattractive.