Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a federal law that protects employees against discrimination based on certain specified characteristics: race, color, national origin, sex, and religion. Under Title VII, an employer may not discriminate with regard to any term, condition, or privilege of employment. Areas that may give rise to violations include recruiting, hiring, promoting, transferring, training, disciplining, discharging, assigning work, measuring performance, or providing benefits.
Title VII applies to employers in both the private and public sectors that have 15 or more employees. It also applies to the federal government, employment agencies, and labor organizations. Title VII is enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
No person employed by a company covered by Title VII, or applying to work for that company, can be denied employment or treated differently with regard to any workplace decision on the basis of perceived racial, religious, national, sexual, or religious characteristics. No employee can be treated differently based on his or her association with someone who has one of these protected characteristics.
Additionally, employment decisions may not be made on the basis of stereotypes or assumptions related to any protected characteristic. For example, it is unlawful for a supervisor to refuse to promote a Vietnamese person to a management position because he or she believes that Asian people are not good leaders.
Discriminatory Policies in Violation of Title VII
Employment policies and practices may be discriminatory under Title VII based on disparate treatment or disparate impact. Disparate treatment involves intentional discrimination by an employer. For example, a football league with the policy that women may not hold any decision-making position with the league probably would violate Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination. Similarly, employees who belong to a protected group cannot be segregated or physically isolated from either other employees or clients. For example, it is illegal for a major corporation to assign only white people to positions at an office in a predominantly white area or to assign primarily Asian employees to positions at an office in an area with a high Asian population.
An exception to the general rule against disparate treatment exists when the lack of a protected characteristic is a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ) for a particular job. An employer may successfully defend on the grounds that although a particular requirement seems intentionally discriminatory, it is a BFOQ for a job. For example, if a movie role calls for an actor to play Abraham Lincoln, the casting director may choose to consider only white males, even though this seems to discriminate on the basis of race and sex.
Title VII also prohibits apparently neutral job policies that have a disproportionate impact on protected groups. However, an employer that institutes a policy alleged to have a disparate impact may defend itself on the grounds that the policy is important for job performance or is a business necessity.
A seemingly neutral policy of soliciting applications only from sources where all of the potential job candidates are of the same race could have a disparate impact. For example, if an employer has a policy of hiring only applicants who belong to a private country club that has an all-white male membership, this policy would have a disparate impact, adversely affecting minorities and women.
Title VII also prohibits harassment based on the victim’s membership in a protected class. Harassment must be unwelcome and either severe or pervasive to be actionable. If you are harassed, it is important to notify the perpetrator that you find his or her behavior offensive and to notify the employer. A failure to give an employer notice can adversely affect a discrimination claim. For example, if a coworker propositions you for sexual favors repeatedly, you should report the sexual harassment to your Human Resources department or follow grievance procedures outlined in your employment handbook to give your employer a chance to correct the situation before filing a claim with the EEOC.
It is illegal for an employer to retaliate against you for opposing discrimination under Title VII, for participating in an EEOC investigation of a discrimination claim, or for making a discrimination claim yourself.