Employees are protected under federal, state and local laws from many forms of discrimination in the workplace. It’s important for employers to know what protections their employees have, how to avoid disputes over discrimination, and how to resolve these disputes should they arise.

Classes of protected workers

Under federal law, workers are protected from discrimination in the workplace based on their race, national origin, sex, age, disability or religion. The protection against discrimination based on sex extends to protect workers from being discriminated against for being pregnant. For the purposes of federal law, sexual harassment is also a form of sex discrimination.

When an employer cannot discriminate

Anti-discrimination laws can come into play at almost any time during a worker’s employment, from the hiring process to the firing or retirement process. Some employment-related actions that might spark a claim of unlawful discrimination include:

  • Refusing to hire
  • Disciplining the employee
  • Firing the employee
  • Failing to promote the employee
  • Denying training for the employee
  • Denying the employee a promotion or pay increase
  • Demoting the employee
  • Paying the employee less
  • Reducing the employee’s hours

Colorado law provides additional protections. Some city governments have even more protections for workers.

When employers can discriminate

If employers can’t discriminate between workers, how do they know who to hire, who to fire, who to promote, and so on? It’s important to remember that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and most similar civil rights laws don’t necessarily prohibit all discrimination. They just prohibit discrimination against workers on the basis of a worker’s status as a member of certain protected classes.

For example, an employer can choose to hire job applicant Joe and not job applicant Josephine because Joe’s qualifications are better. This type of discrimination is based on a legitimate business purpose. However, if the employer refuses to hire Josephine solely because she is a woman, then the employer has committed unlawful discrimination.

A skilled employment law attorney can help employers understand their rights and legal options should they be accused of unlawful discrimination.