Sexual Orientation Discrimination Laws in Employment
Sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace includes any type of different treatment or harassment of an employee based on their real or perceived sexual orientation. It also includes firing or refusing to hire an employee on the basis of their real or perceived sexual orientation. Title VII, a federal law, prohibits employment discrimination in the private sector based on sexual orientation and gender identity, according to a Supreme Court decision in June 2020. While Title VII does not specifically mention "sexual orientation discrimination" in its language, the Court determined that discrimination based on sexual orientation is essentially a form of sex discrimination, which is explicitly prohibited by Title VII.
Federal government employees also are protected from discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation. Many state and local governments have enacted additional laws that prohibit sexual orientation discrimination in private and public workplaces. These laws may cover a broader range of workplaces than those covered under Title VII, which covers only workplaces with 15 or more employees.
Sexual Harassment Based on Sexual Orientation
Harassment is any unwelcome conduct that is so pervasive or so severe that it would cause a reasonable person to feel that the conduct created a hostile work environment. While a single offhand remark about somebody’s sexuality might not be considered serious enough to be actionable, repeated offensive comments or one traumatic event could be construed as prohibited sexual harassment. Sexual harassment, irrespective of a perpetrator or victim’s orientation, is illegal under Title VII.
For example, a female CEO who promises a raise to a female assistant in exchange for going on a date would subject the company to liability for quid pro quo sexual harassment. Under Title VII, both victims and perpetrators can be of either gender. Similarly, a male supervisor who makes daily lewd sexual comments toward or about a gay employee, such that a reasonable person would feel that he created a hostile work environment, could be liable for sexual harassment under Title VII or under certain state laws.
Some companies adopt strong policies that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. These policies may be incorporated in your employment contract or outlined in an employee handbook. Usually, disciplinary guidelines will outline how supervisors and managers who discriminate will be handled.
If there are no sexual orientation discrimination guidelines in your employee handbook, your state has not put into place any laws prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination, and your employer is not covered by Title VII, you may still be able to sue the employer or coworkers under your state’s tort laws. For example, if a coworker gains access to your personal emails and spreads false rumors about your sexual orientation as a “joke” to your other coworkers, you would have a legitimate reason to complain to your supervisor on the grounds of sexual harassment. However, if your employer cannot rectify the situation because the rumor has already spread through the company and done damage, you would still have the option of suing in state court for defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and invasion of privacy.
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