What Is a Protected Class? (2022)

The term “protected class” refers to groups of people who are legally protected from being harmed or harassed by laws, practices, and policies that discriminate against them due to a shared characteristic (e.g. race, gender, age, disability, or sexual orientation). These groups are protected by both U.S. federal and state laws.

The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice is the independent federal agency responsible for enforcing all federal anti-discrimination laws. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is assigned with the enforcement of these laws specifically as they apply to employment.

Key Takeaways

  • A protected class is a group of people sharing a common trait who are legally protected from being discriminated against on the basis of that trait.
  • Examples of protected traits include race, gender, age, disability, and veteran status.
  • U.S. anti-discrimination laws are enforced by both the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

What Are the Protected Classes?

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (CRA) and subsequent federal laws and regulations prohibited discrimination against individuals or groups of individuals because of particular traits. The following table displays each protected trait alongside the law/regulation that established it as such.

Protected CharacteristicFederal Law Establishing Protected Status
RaceCivil Rights Act of 1964
Religious beliefCivil Rights Act of 1964
National originCivil Rights Act of 1964
Age (40 years and up)Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1975
Sex*Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Civil Rights Act of 1964
PregnancyPregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978
CitizenshipImmigration Reform and Control Actof 1986
Familial statusCivil Rights Act of 1968
Disability statusRehabilitation Act of 1973 and Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
Veteran statusVietnam Era Veterans' Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974 and Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act
Genetic informationGenetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008

While not required by federal law, many private employers also have policies protecting their employees from discrimination or harassment based on their marital status, including same-gender marriage. In addition, many states have their own laws protecting more broadly-defined and inclusive classes of people.

Gender Class Protection

Since 1965, four presidents have issued executive orders which prohibit consideration of sex and gender attributes in employment decisions of the United States federal government and its contractors, eventually including both sexual orientation and gender identity.

Signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson on September 24, 1965, Executive Order 11246 established requirements for non-discriminatory practices in hiring and employment on the part of U.S. government contractors. It "prohibits federal contractors and federally assisted construction contractors and subcontractors, who do over $10,000 in Government business in one year from discriminating in employment decisions based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." It also requires contractors to "take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, color, religion, sex or national origin."

Executive Order 11478, signed by U.S. President Richard M. Nixon on August 8, 1969, prohibited discrimination in the competitive service of the federal civilian workforce on certain grounds. The order was later amended to cover additional protected classes. Executive Order 11478 covered the federal civilian workforce, including the United States Postal Service and civilian employees of the United States Armed Forces. It prohibited discrimination in employment based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, handicap, and age. It also required all departments and agencies to take affirmative steps to promote employment opportunities for those classes.

(Video) HR Basics: Protected Classes

Executive Order 13087 was signed by U.S. President Bill Clinton on May 28, 1998, amending Executive Order 11478 to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in the competitive service of the federal civilian workforce. The order also applies to employees of the government of the District of Columbia and the United States Postal Service. However, it does not apply to positions and agencies in the excepted service, such as the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Signed by U.S. President Barack Obama on July 21, 2014, Executive Order 13672 amended two earlier executive orders to extend protection against discrimination in hiring and employment to additional classes. It prohibited discrimination in the civilian federal workforce based on gender identity and in hiring by federal contractors based on both sexual orientation and gender identity.

Discrimination vs. Harassment

Harassment is a form of discrimination. It is often, but not always, associated with the workplace. Harassment can include a wide range of actions such as racial slurs, derogatory remarks, or unwanted personal attention or touching.

While anti-discrimination laws do not prohibit acts like occasional offhand comments or teasing, harassment can become illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it results in a hostile work environment in which the victim finds it difficult or uncomfortable to work.

Examples of Discrimination Against Protected Classes

Persons who are members of the legally protected classes tend to face a vast number of examples of discrimination.

  • An employee who is undergoing treatment for a medical condition (for example, cancer) is treated less fairly because they have a “history of disability.”
  • A person is denied a marriage license when they attempt to marry a person of the same gender.
  • A registered voter is treated differently than other voters at a polling place because of their appearance, race, or national origin.
  • An employee who is over 40 years of age is denied a promotion because of their age, even though they are fully qualified for the job.
  • A transgender person is subjected to harassment or discrimination because of their identity.

During 2017, members of protected classes filled 84,254 charges of workplace discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). While charges of discrimination or harassment were filed by members of all protected classes, race (33.9%), disability (31.9%), and sex (30.4%) were filed most frequently. In addition, the EEOC received 6,696 charges of sexual harassment and obtained $46.3 million in monetary benefits for the victims.

What Classes Are Not Protected?

There are certain groups that are not treated as protected classes under anti-discrimination laws. These include:

  • Level of educational attainment
  • Income level or socio-economic classes, such “middle class”
  • Undocumented immigrants
  • Persons with a criminal history

Federal law strictly prohibits blatant discrimination against protected classes, but it does not absolutely bar employers from considering a person’s membership in a protected class under all circumstances. For example, a person’s gender may be considered in employment decisions if the job is for a bathroom attendant and the facilities' bathrooms are gender-segregated.

Another example deals with lifting requirements and if they are ableist. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states that lifting up to 51 pounds can be a job requirement as long as lifting heavy items is an essential task. So, it is legal for a moving company to have lifting 50 pounds as a job requirement, but it would be illegal for a front desk assistant position to have a similar requirement. There is also much nuance in cases concerning lifting.

What Are ‘Immutable Characteristics’ in Anti-Discrimination Law?

In the law, the term “immutable characteristic” refers to any attribute considered impossible or difficult to change, such as race, national origin, or gender. Individuals claiming to have experienced discrimination because of an immutable characteristic will automatically be treated as members of a protected class. An immutable characteristic is the clearest way to define a protected class; these characteristics are given the most legal protection.

(Video) Protected Classes under Anti-Discrimination Laws

Sexual orientation was previously at the center of a legal debate about immutable characteristics. However, under today's anti-discrimination laws, sexual orientation has been established as an immutable trait.

History of the Protected Classes

The first officially recognized protected classes were race and color. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 prohibited discrimination “in civil rights or immunities...on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The Act also barred discrimination in the making of contracts— include employment contracts—based on race and color.

The list of protected classes grew significantly with the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned discrimination in employment based on race, color, national origin, sex, and religion. The Act also created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), an independent federal agency empowered to enforce all existing and future civil rights laws as they apply to employment.

Age was added to the list of protected classes in 1967 with the passage of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. The Act applies only to people age 40 and older.

In 1973, persons with disabilities were added to the list of protected classes, by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination based on disability in the employment of federal government employees. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) extended similar protections to private-sector workers. In 2008, the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act added virtually all Americans with disabilities to the list of protected classes.

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Longley, Robert. "What Is a Protected Class?" ThoughtCo, Jun. 11, 2022, thoughtco.com/what-is-protected-class-4583111.Longley, Robert. (2022, June 11). What Is a Protected Class? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-protected-class-4583111Longley, Robert. "What Is a Protected Class?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-protected-class-4583111 (accessed August 8, 2022).

FAQs

What are the 9 main protected characteristics? ›

Under the Equality Act, there are nine protected characteristics:
  • age.
  • disability.
  • gender reassignment.
  • marriage and civil partnership.
  • pregnancy and maternity.
  • race.
  • religion or belief.
  • sex.
19 Feb 2020

What are 3 direct discrimination examples? ›

What is direct discrimination?
  • age.
  • disability.
  • gender reassignment.
  • marriage or civil partnership.
  • pregnancy and maternity.
  • race.
  • religion or belief.
  • sex.

What is a protected characteristic definition? ›

What does it mean to have a protected characteristic? Having a protected characteristic means you have a right not to be treated less favourably, or subjected to an unfair disadvantage, by reason of that characteristic, for example, because of your age, race, religion, sex or sexual orientation.

What are the 3 types of discrimination? ›

Race, Color, and Sex

For example, this Act prohibits discrimination against an Asian individual because of physical characteristics such as facial features or height. Color discrimination occurs when persons are treated differently than others because of their skin pigmentation.

What are the three common barriers to equality? ›

Unconscious bias. Women's under-estimation/lack of belief of their abilities to do the most senior roles. Lack of sponsorship. Racism.

How can you prove discrimination? ›

Before EEOC can conclude that you were discriminated against, it would need to have proof that: 1. You were treated differently than someone of a different sex, race, national origin, color, religion, or age. EEOC will ask what you know about the person whom you believe was treated more favorable than you.

What are the 9 grounds of discrimination? ›

The inclusive school prevents and combats discrimination. It is one that respects, values and accommodates diversity across all nine grounds in the equality legislation – gender, marital status, family status, sexual orientation, religion, age, disability, race and membership of the Traveller community.

What is an example of unfair discrimination? ›

Unfair discrimination: is dealt with under the Employment Equity Act. Examples of this are – race, gender, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age and disability, etc. Discrimination can be direct or indirect. These disputes go to the Labour Court and the Employment Equity Act applies.

Why is it important to know about protected characteristics? ›

Understanding what the protected characteristics are is important because any discriminatory or harassing behaviour is only unlawful if it is related to a relevant protected characteristic. The definition of protected characteristics is found in section 4 of the Equality Act 2010 (the Act).

How many characteristics are protected? ›

There are nine protected characteristics in the Equality Act. Discrimination which happens because of one or more of these characteristics is unlawful under the Act. We all have some of these characteristics - for example, sex or age - so the Act protects everyone from discrimination.

What should you do if you feel that someone is being treated unfairly in your workplace? ›

Here are seven things you can do if you think you might be being treated differently to others.
  1. Keep a record. ...
  2. Unfairness or discrimination? ...
  3. Talk to someone you trust. ...
  4. Join your Union. ...
  5. Go through official channels. ...
  6. Seek legal advice. ...
  7. You don't have to tolerate unfair treatment.
31 Aug 2021

What is it called when your manager treats you unfairly? ›

Bullying and Harassment

There are many forms of unfair treatment or harassment, and these include: Spreading malicious rumours about you. Treating you unfairly. Picking on you.

What is the most common discrimination? ›

Indirect discrimination

When people are unaware that they are being discriminatory or do not intend to be, this is one of the most common types of discrimination because at times you may make decisions or put in place business practices without thinking to consider those with protected characteristics.

What is discriminatory behavior? ›

Discrimination. The differential treatment of an individual or group of people based on their race, color, national origin, religion, sex (including pregnancy and gender identity), age, marital and parental status, disability, sexual orientation, or genetic information.

Is anxiety a disability under the Equality Act? ›

An employee is considered to have a disability under the Equality Act 2010 if they have a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. This can include depressive and anxiety-related impairments.

What is not unlawful discrimination? ›

If there's a law which says that some people can be treated differently in a particular situation - for example, because of their sex or religion and belief - it's not unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act if a public authority treats you differently in that situation.

What are three examples of actions that could be considered discrimination in a workplace? ›

Examples Discrimination in the Workplace
  • Not getting hired.
  • Being passed over for a promotion.
  • Enduring inappropriate comments.
  • Getting fired because of your status as a member of a protected class.
  • Denying an employee certain compensation or benefits.
  • Denying disability leave, retirement options, or maternity leave.
12 Aug 2019

How can we overcome barriers to equality and inclusion? ›

3 Strategies To Overcome Barriers To Equality And Diversity On...
  1. Public Boards: Increasing Awareness. ...
  2. Improve Training. ...
  3. Private Boards: Improve the Appointment Process. ...
  4. Develop Mentoring. ...
  5. Fix Pipeline Issues. ...
  6. Improve Access to Professional Networks. ...
  7. Use Governance Codes to Set Targets. ...
  8. Special Measures.
23 Dec 2014

What are the social barriers to equality and inclusion? ›

Four main barriers were identified: lack of necessary knowledge and skills; role of support staff and service managers; location of house; and community factors such as lack of amenities and attitudes.

What are the benefits of equality and diversity within a community? ›

Helps to reduce social and economic barriers • Helps people understand social norms • Is morally correct • Reflects the community we serve • Meets local needs • Helps to build a strong community • Supports and encourages social cohesion • Supports minority groups in achieving potential • Raises awareness-displaces ...

How can you prove discrimination is unfair? ›

It provides that a complainant alleging unfair discrimination must prove, on a balance of probabilities, that: the conduct complained of is not rational; the conduct complained of amounts to discrimination; and. the discrimination is unfair.

How do you prove a hostile work environment? ›

First, it's important to understand the legal requirements. To constitute a hostile work environment, the behavior must discriminate against a protected group of people. That includes conduct based on race, color, religion, gender, pregnancy, national origin, age, disability or genetic information.

How do you tell if your boss is discriminating against you? ›

5 Signs of Employment Discrimination
  • Lack of Diversity: Some signs of discrimination are more noticeable than others. ...
  • Fixed Roles: ...
  • Overlooked or Denied Promotions: ...
  • Demeaning and Alienating Communication: ...
  • Negative Increase or Decrease of Workload: ...
  • Bogus Discipline:
7 Feb 2018

What is prohibited grounds of discrimination? ›

3 (1) For all purposes of this Act, the prohibited grounds of discrimination are race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, marital status, family status, genetic characteristics, disability and conviction for an offence for which a pardon has been ...

Is indirect discrimination unlawful? ›

Indirect discrimination can be more difficult to spot than direct discrimination. It's when you're treated in the same way as everyone else, but it has a worse effect on you because of who you are - for example, because you're gay or disabled. Indirect discrimination is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010.

Should all employees be treated equally? ›

You have both a moral and legal responsibility to make sure people are hired based solely on their skills, qualifications and personal merit. Prejudice and discrimination should have no place in your recruitment processes. It is also very important to treat your employees fairly and equally at all times.

What is a real life example of discrimination? ›

The dentist says she is not prepared to treat her anymore because of her behaviour. The dentist is refusing Jeannette a service because of behaviour related to her disability. This may be discrimination arising from disability.

What is intentional discrimination? ›

Generally, intentional discrimination occurs when the recipient acted, at least in part, because of the actual or perceived race, color, or national origin of the alleged victims of discriminatory treatment.

What's an example of prejudice? ›

A few commonplace examples of prejudice are those based on someone's race, gender, nationality, social status, sexual orientation, or religious affiliation, and controversies may arise from any given topic.

What characteristics are not protected? ›

It is against the law to discriminate against someone because of:
  • age.
  • disability.
  • gender reassignment.
  • marriage and civil partnership.
  • pregnancy and maternity.
  • race.
  • religion or belief.
  • sex.
6 Jul 2021

Is mental health a protected characteristic? ›

Protected characteristics

They are: age. disability (this can include mental health problems) gender reassignment.

Who is protected under the Equality Act? ›

Protected characteristics

These are age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.

What is an example of positive discrimination? ›

This is a form of discrimination that favours someone by treating them differently in a positive way. An example might be an organisation appointing someone from an underrepresented group into a role without considering whether they have right skills for the post.

Is being a parent a protected characteristic? ›

Is parenting and caring a protected characteristic? Parenting and caring is not a protected characteristic, but you may be able to rely on sex, pregnancy and maternity or disability discrimination.

What is positive action? ›

Positive action is about taking specific steps to improve equality in your workplace. For example, to increase the number of disabled people in senior roles in which they are currently under-represented.

What counts as unfair treatment? ›

By law, it's harassment when bullying or unwanted behaviour is about any of the protected characteristics, which are:
  • Age.
  • Race.
  • Sex.
  • Gender reassignment.
  • Disability.
  • Religion or belief.
  • Sexual orientation.
  • Marriage or civil partnership.
30 Oct 2020

What are examples of being treated unfairly? ›

paying non-white workers less money than white workers. a school excluding a young woman who is pregnant. refusing to rent a flat to someone who has the HIV/AIDS virus. not allowing an adult gay male into a sports club.

What are managers not allowed to do? ›

Not pay you overtime or minimum wage. Promise a job to an unpaid intern. Discriminate against workers. Allow you to work off the clock.

How many protected characteristics are there? ›

There are nine protected characteristics in the Equality Act. Discrimination which happens because of one or more of these characteristics is unlawful under the Act. We all have some of these characteristics - for example, sex or age - so the Act protects everyone from discrimination.

What is an example of a protected characteristic? ›

It is against the law to discriminate against someone because of: age. disability. gender reassignment.

What are the protected characteristics UK? ›

It is against the law to discriminate against anyone because of:
  • age.
  • gender reassignment.
  • being married or in a civil partnership.
  • being pregnant or on maternity leave.
  • disability.
  • race including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin.
  • religion or belief.
  • sex.

What is the difference between positive action and positive discrimination? ›

What is the difference between positive action and positive discrimination? Positive action is permissible, whilst positive discrimination is unlawful.

What should you do if you feel that someone is being treated unfairly in your workplace? ›

Here are seven things you can do if you think you might be being treated differently to others.
  1. Keep a record. ...
  2. Unfairness or discrimination? ...
  3. Talk to someone you trust. ...
  4. Join your Union. ...
  5. Go through official channels. ...
  6. Seek legal advice. ...
  7. You don't have to tolerate unfair treatment.
31 Aug 2021

Is mental health a protected characteristic? ›

Protected characteristics

They are: age. disability (this can include mental health problems) gender reassignment.

What are the 9 grounds of discrimination? ›

The inclusive school prevents and combats discrimination. It is one that respects, values and accommodates diversity across all nine grounds in the equality legislation – gender, marital status, family status, sexual orientation, religion, age, disability, race and membership of the Traveller community.

Why is it important to know about protected characteristics? ›

Understanding what the protected characteristics are is important because any discriminatory or harassing behaviour is only unlawful if it is related to a relevant protected characteristic. The definition of protected characteristics is found in section 4 of the Equality Act 2010 (the Act).

Is class a protected characteristic? ›

Under the Equality Act 2010, social class is not a protected characteristic – it does not share the protection of race, sex, religion or any other of the nine protected characteristics.

What is the term for people who have multiple protected characteristics? ›

Intersectionality is a term that is used in a number of different ways. It can be used in reference to the identity and/or experiences of a person who has more than one protected characteristic (E.g.: a black lesbian who uses a wheelchair).

What is an example of positive discrimination? ›

This is a form of discrimination that favours someone by treating them differently in a positive way. An example might be an organisation appointing someone from an underrepresented group into a role without considering whether they have right skills for the post.

What are some examples of indirect discrimination? ›

For example, if you're Jewish and observe the Sabbath, you can't work on Saturdays. It doesn't matter that there aren't any other Jewish people who work in the same shop. It can still be indirect discrimination if something would normally disadvantage people sharing your characteristic.

What is Victimisation discrimination? ›

If you're treated badly because you complain about discrimination or you help someone who has been discriminated against, this is called victimisation. Victimisation is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010. If you've been treated badly because you complained, you may be able to do something about it.

What Victimisation mean? ›

Victimisation is defined in the Act as: Treating someone badly because they have done a 'protected act' (or because you believe that a person has done or is going to do a protected act). A 'protected act' is: Making a claim or complaint of discrimination (under the Equality Act).

What does unfair discrimination mean? ›

Unfair discrimination occurs when an employer shows favour, prejudice or bias for or against a person on a prohibited ground, including a person's race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, family responsibility, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, HIV status, conscience, ...

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