Since the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, many additional anti-discrimination laws have been enacted at both the state and federal levels. Among other things, the state and federal discrimination laws prohibit discrimination against applicants and employees based on their protected characteristics. Without workplace discrimination laws, employers would be allowed to discriminate against anyone for any reason and at any time. However, the current anti-discrimination laws might not be enough to end discrimination in the workplace and in other settings. Here is some information about why these laws are important and other steps that might be needed from the attorneys at Swartz Swidler.
Social Factors Influencing Discrimination
From birth, people naturally try to identify things in their environment that they perceive as different from them, which can result in some people considering those who have differences as being potentially dangerous. This type of behavior can be reinforced by social groups with which the individuals identify and result in prejudice and discrimination.
A classroom experiment conducted by a teacher named Jane Elliot in 1968 on the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated illustrates how influential social pressures can be on the formation of prejudice. Ms. Elliot divided the students in her class by eye color and passed out armbands for them to wear based on the color of their eyes. She told her students that their eye color was reflective of their race.
Ms. Elliot seated the children with brown eyes in the first two rows of the classroom and gave them more favorable treatment. The children with brown eyes became dominant over the other children, and the children with blue eyes stopped learning and became more submissive. Ms. Elliot’s experiment demonstrated how easily discrimination and resulting prejudice can be influenced by social rules and showed why anti-discrimination laws, including in the workplace, are critical.
The Role of Workplace Discrimination Laws
Before anti-discrimination laws were passed and applied to the workplace, members of minority groups were regularly excluded from employment or only provided the lowest-paying work. Employers routinely used factors, including gender and race, to make employment decisions and to deny employment. Black people and women who were employed were paid much less than their white male counterparts. Title VII and its amendments helped to facilitate change by making discrimination against members of protected groups illegal in the workplace. State anti-discrimination laws might offer broader protections than the federal anti-discrimination laws, including protecting additional characteristics and covering more employers. For example, Title VII applies to employers with 15 or more employees, but the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination applies to all employers operating in the state.
While these laws have helped to close the gap, many workplace discrimination cases are filed each year. This demonstrates that discrimination in the workplace continues to be a problem despite these laws.
Who Is Protected?
There are many different types of protected characteristics included within the anti-discrimination laws. Some examples include the following:
- Sexual orientation
- Gender identity
- National origin
- Citizenship status
- Genetic information
Anti-discrimination laws cover all aspects of employment, including job advertisements, recruiting, applications, interviews, hiring decisions, salaries, job assignments, promotions, training opportunities, bonuses, discipline, layoffs, and job termination.
Limits of the Laws
Applicants and employees have the right to file discrimination charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission when they are illegally discriminated against at work. If their claims are successful, they can recover damages, including back pay, front pay, reinstatement, injunctive relief, attorney’s fees, non-economic damages, and others. However, workplace discrimination is often subtle instead of overt, making it more difficult to prove.
Many employees hesitate to file discrimination complaints out of fear of retaliation. While the anti-discrimination laws also prohibit retaliation against employees for filing discrimination complaints, the fear of job loss or other adverse employment actions convinces many employees not to complain about discrimination. This can allow the conduct to continue to occur in the workplace. Many applicants and employees are unaware of their rights and what they can do when they are the victims of illegal discrimination. Finally, the laws are applied unevenly within companies, making greater enforcement important.
Steps That Can be Taken
Training is key to helping reduce and prevent workplace discrimination. Employers should conduct regular diversity and inclusion training classes and educate workers about unconscious bias and harassment. When workers understand what constitutes discrimination and harassment and are encouraged to report any incidents when they occur, workplaces can become much more inclusive and positive. When businesses can do this instead of waiting for legal enforcement actions to change their culture, their efforts can be much more effective.
Instead of relying on discrimination laws to serve as deterrents, it is best to foster inclusion and diversity to cultivate a workplace culture that prevents the need for employees to file discrimination lawsuits in the first place. Fostering an inclusive workplace helps to improve employee morale, reduce turnover, and make going to work a better experience for all employees.
Legislators should also carefully examine the current anti-discrimination laws and work to close gaps in their coverage. By analyzing what is working and is not with these laws, legislators might be able to craft new legislation and amendments to help prevent workplace discrimination even further.
Get Help from an Anti-Discrimination Attorney
Despite the numerous state and federal anti-discrimination laws, illegal discrimination continues to occur in workplaces across the U.S. However, these laws provide the victims of discrimination with legal remedies to help to end it. If you believe that you have been the victim of unlawful discrimination based on your protected characteristics, you should consult the employment discrimination lawyers at Swartz Swidler. We can review your case and explain the rights that you might have. Call us today for a free consultation at 856-685-7420.