Employment Discrimination

There are many forms of discrimination—some are not as obvious as others.

Employment Discrimination Law

State and federal laws provide specific definitions of what constitutes unlawful discrimination not only as it pertains to hiring, but also compensation, promotion, and termination.  However, not all employers are covered under these laws (small employers generally are not) and not all discrimination is illegal.  For example, it is legal to discriminate against a job candidate on the  basis of educational level.  However, the law defines a number of protected categories which set out the difference between legal and illegal discrimination.

In North Carolina, protected categories generally include:

  • Race, color, or national origin
  • Age
  • Sex or gender
  • Pregnancy
  • Religion
  • Disability
  • Genetic information

Employers have a legal obligation not only to keep illegal discrimination out of hiring practices but also to ensure that employees are paid equitably and considered equally for training and promotions.

Harassment and Hostile Work Environment

Willful and active discrimination on the part of an employer is only part of the picture. It is also possible for an employer to passively allow discrimination to occur in the work environment.  An employer must not only refrain from discriminating against employees, but must also design and enforce policies that systematically ensure a fair and equitable workplace.   If your employer allows a hostile work environment to form, the law may offer recourse.  If,  because of your race, gender, or other protected category, you have been insulted, threatened, harassed, bullied, or treated disrespectfully by a supervisor or coworker , your employer may be liable according to the law.   However, if your co-workers or manager are simply unpleasant and difficult to work with you and you find the environment stressful but their actions are not related to your race, gender, religion or other protected class, then your employer will not be liable under the law.

Types of workplace harassment or hostile work environment might include:

  • Sexual harassment, including persistent offensive sexual jokes or comments, unwelcome touching and sexual assault
  • Persistent offensive jokes based on your race, national origin, religion, or other protected categories
  • Certain negative employment actions because of your race, national origin, religion or other protected classes
    • Persistent targeting designed to publicly embarrass or humiliate you
    • Unfairly negative performance reviews
    • Excessive or unwarranted disciplinary action

Disability Discrimination

It is illegal to discriminate against an employee or potential employee on the basis of a mental or physical disability or handicap.  If you are able to perform your job with reasonable accommodations, it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate on the basis of your disability.  Failure to provide reasonable accommodations also constitutes unlawful discrimination.

If you need a reasonable accommodation in order to perform the essential duties of your job, it is your responsibility to confidentially inform your employer of your disability.  Your employer must then engage you in an interactive process to determine whether there is a reasonable accommodation that would work in your situation.

Family and Medical Leave (FMLA) Interference or Discrimination

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides you with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in order to care for the serious health condition of you or a family members.  It also provides protections for military families to make arrangements and attend to certain family needs.

Employers must grant you FMLA leave if you can certify that you or someone you care for has a serious health condition and leave is medically necessary.  You may even qualify for intermittent leave based on the nature of the condition.  An employer that interferes with your FMLA rights by denying leave or ending your employment because you took or requested leave may be liable.  Remedies include reinstatement to your position or a very similar position or payment of wages and benefits lost.


Retaliation by your employer against you because you are asserting your rights under the law or are complaining of what you believe to be unlawful conduct is an unlawful employment practice.  Retaliation can take the form of termination or wrongful discharge, demotion, or some other disciplinary measure that substantially affects your employment.



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